For the first time since Week 14, the Indianapolis Colts' game means something. The Colts have had a playoff spot clinched since the Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans back on December 8, a spot that will result in the franchise's first home playoff game since 2009 on Saturday.
The Colts will host the Kansas City Chiefs at 4:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, a rematch of the two teams' meeting at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 16. The Colts pulled out a win in that one with dominating performances on both sides of the ball, a win that gives fans confidence heading into the postseason. The Chiefs have had an impressive season but have faltered in big games, going 1-5 against playoff teams.
But the Colts are flawed on both sides of the ball and have numerous weak points, so they could collapse at a critical juncture. This, after all, is a team that was blown out by the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams and fell to double-digit deficits against both the Texans and Titans. If the Colts were to fall behind early against Kansas City, it could turn into a game similar to the Colts' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 playoffs, where Jamaal Charles beats the Colts up late to grind the clock out.
Either way, it should be a more competitive game than the two teams' first matchup, and neither team will be holding back. How can the Colts get their first playoff win since the 2009 Super Bowl run? Find out in this week's game plan.
Offense: Stretch the Field and Take Advantage of Space
The Chiefs have a very talented defense, and it all starts with a strong front seven. If the Chiefs can be taken advantage of in one spot, it's the secondary, where cornerbacks Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper have had rough years, especially Flowers and Cooper. At safety, Eric Barry has been fantastic, but he often has to cover for Kendrick Lewis' mistakes.
These are weak spots that Andrew Luck and the passing game should be able to take advantage of, as they did on this play in Week 16.
The slot corner blitzes on this play, leaving Lewis matched up with T.Y. Hilton in the slot. On the other side, Berry falls back into single-high safety coverage but has to keep an eye out for Coby Fleener (flanked on the left) running a post down the seam.
As the line picks up the blitz, Luck has an open Griff Whalen on the left side of the field, but he correctly reads that Berry has the high coverage and knows that he's watching Fleener (and Da'Rick Rogers on the outside right) come up the seam, giving Hilton a one-on-one matchup with Lewis. Luck pump-fakes to Whalen, which draws CB Sean Smith, Lewis and Quentin Demps (who was playing as a dime defensive back on the other side of the field) toward Whalen, leaving Hilton all kinds of space behind Lewis to exploit.
Hilton gets way behind the defensive backs and is only kept from a touchdown by an under-thrown ball by Luck, who was unable to step into the throw given pressure up the middle. Berry comes from across the field to stop Hilton, but the play still netted the Colts 31 yards, and the Colts would score a field goal on the drive.
The Colts have begun to stretch the field with wide receiver routes and tight end seam routes more and more during the last few weeks, which has had an effect on plays like this, or Coby Fleener's two-seam targets against the Jaguars last week. But, the increase in downfield routes has also resulted in more space being available for the running backs, like there was for Donald Brown in this 33-yard catch-and-run.
Hilton and Rogers both run 9-routes down the left side while Griff Whalen takes a shallow drag route right-to-left. Fleener runs a deep in, and combined, the routes take all the primary defenders in coverage and get them down the field and to the left.
Luck looks left long enough for defenders to suck that direction, and Donald Brown holds in pass protection for a few seconds before slipping out to the right side, where Luck hits him. Brown turns around, and the closest defender is 10 yards away. Brown led the league in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating this season for a reason, so 33 yards later, the Colts had their first touchdown of the game.
Brown and Trent Richardson have combined for 23 catches for 191 yards over the last four weeks, which is a huge increase over the early parts of the season.
Again, this isn't an increase due to more screens but more downfield passing resulting in space for the backs in flat and over the middle. We saw the same space over the middle result in career highs for Hilton last week against the Jaguars, as he took 15 passes that were largely shallow crossing patterns for 11 catches and 155 yards.
If the Colts can spread the Chiefs out, they can take advantage of them in the passing game.
Defense: Charles, Charles, Charles
As simple as the offensive game plan may seem, the defensive keys to the game are limited to just one core concept: Stop Jamaal Charles.
Yes, John Dorsey made a great move to upgrade at quarterback by bringing in Alex Smith to run Andy Reid's offense in 2013, but Smith is still a mediocre quarterback at best. The weapons that Smith has on the outside (a down Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster) simply are not going to carry Smith like, for example, the weapons in Cincinnati could carry Andy Dalton.
Teams can shut down the receivers. The question is whether they can shut down Charles.
|Chiefs Score...||Rush Yds.||Rec. Yds.||Total Yds.||Total Per Game|
The magic number seems to be 150 for Charles. When Charles had over 150 total yards (receiving and rushing) in a game, the Chiefs offense scored over 34 points per game. When he was held under that, they were held to 17.5 points per game.
The real key, however, seems to be keeping Charles in check in the receiving game and out of the end zone. Looking at Charles' splits, the numbers are astounding in wins versus losses.
In losses, Charles actually averaged slightly more rushing yards and yards per carry but averaged two catches and 30 yards less than in wins. It makes sense, again considering Smith and the lack of a downfield passing offense, that Charles would be carrying the passing game as well. It's no coincidence that Charles led the team in receiving with 70 catches and 693 yards.
In their first matchup with Indianapolis, the Chiefs scored on their first drive behind good field position and two rushes for 37 yards and a touchdown by Charles. But, for the rest of the game, the Colts were able to keep Charles contained to moderate gains on the ground (he didn't have another carry for over six yards until the fourth quarter, during garbage time) and just 38 receiving yards on five catches.
The Colts kept Charles from excelling by being extremely wary of screens and dump-offs and swarming Charles as soon as he got the ball. Take this third-down pass for example. The play calls for deep routes by the Chiefs receivers, and then Smith quickly dumps the ball off for Charles. But the Colts linebackers and defensive linemen were prepared for such a play and hurtled toward Charles as soon as Smith turned his eyes back toward the running back.
Now, Charles was still able to make a few players miss and gain seven yards, but on 3rd-and-13, Antoine Bethea came up with a big hit to stop him, as the traffic was just too much for Charles to overcome.
Andy Reid deserves some blame for a bit of Charles' (relative) lack of production, as Charles received just eight carries between that first drive and the fourth quarter, despite the game being close throughout. But the Colts deserve some credit as well. They knew they had to keep Charles from making big plays, and once they did, they stopped Kansas City.
It's been the blueprint all year for Chiefs opponents, and it will be once again on Saturday.