I have a theory on the cause of the Colts’ struggles in the playoffs in recent years. Some simply think that Manning chokes under the pressure of the big game.
Many think it has a lot to do with the fact that Polian and Company tend to rest their starters late in the season, effectively throwing the team out of sync, causing them to come out flat and without the timing and precision that they rely on so heavily on the offense.
Those may be very reasonable conclusions to make, except you would expect a similar flat play problem with games after the Colts’ bye weeks, or high pressure prime time games in the regular season, and Manning and the Colts have been very successful in those games in the last several years.
I think there are two things not related to high pressure situations or resting players that have had a significant influence on the outcomes of those games.
1. The Database
It’s talked about a lot that Peyton Manning studies harder and works harder than anybody else at his position. He apparently keeps notes on every team and coach he has played against and he uses those notes in his preparation before each game to help him be able to better predict what the defenses will be attempting to do.
And if he can tell what they are attempting to do, more often than not, he can counter whatever it is they try. It would seem to be pretty logical that the less he has played a team, the fewer notes he has, and the less accurate his predictions can be.
There have always been certain teams and coaches that Manning and the Colts have struggled with. The Titans were the problem early in Manning’s career, then the Patriots, most recently the Steelers and the Chargers. It seems that once they get over the hump on a team, they stay over.
The Colts have done extremely well against the Titans and the Patriots in recent years. Manning has his database built up on those teams/coaches. I saw a comment online after the infamous 4th-and-2 play discussions this season, and I apologize that I do not remember the source, but it went something like this. All those years everyone said Belichick was in Manning’s head. Now Manning is in Belichick’s head.
So we get to the playoffs and who the Colts lose to. More often than not, it is a team that they have not met on a regular basis, a team that Manning doesn’t have very much data on. Now for an average team, it does not usually matter; the Colts are good enough to make the adjustments on the fly. But for a playoff team...well that spells trouble. Especially when you consider No. 2 below, which the more I think of it, is probably a result of No. 1.
2. The Matchup
It is no secret that the Colts’ defense has struggled against the run in recent history. That is likely a byproduct of what appears to have been the design of the defense. Many have said that the Colts defense in the Manning era was designed to play with a lead.
The game plan was for the offense to strike early and often, forcing the opponent to effectively abandon the run game. Then Freeney, Mathis, et.al. could just go to town harassing the quarterback.
The defense would play a conservative style, allowing the opponent to make the short yardage gains, but not give up the big play. Then when the field became smaller in the red zone, they would be able to make the stop, holding the opponent to at most a field goal. Bend-don’t-break if you will, and then allow the offense to do their thing.
This style of defense worked just fine against most opponents during the regular season, but in the playoffs you face the best of the best. And when that defense faced a team that could run the ball well, especially a team that could pound out the last few yards necessary to get into the end-zone, that strategy didn’t really work.
Even if the offense was able to drive and score, they usually did so quickly putting the defense back on the field without much rest, making it more difficult for them to make a stop the longer the game went; which in turn meant that the offense had to score every time they got the ball, making them feel like they had to take more chances to keep up or stay ahead.
Now, take that same team with a solid running game, and give them a 3-4 defense with a bunch of disguises, stunts, and blitz packages that aren’t in Manning’s notebook yet. The offensive line, which normally does an exceptional job at protecting Manning, all of a sudden isn’t sure who to block.
Manning isn’t 100 percent sure where the blitz is coming from, who is going to drop back in coverage, or where the best matchup is going to be. So they go into the play without the knowledge and confidence they normally would, but also feeling as if they have to be aggressive and score on every possession, and that’s when turnovers happen.
In the regular season against most teams, if Manning doesn't get the right pre-snap read (and nobody gets it right all the time), the O-line can usually provide him with enough time to make the correct read during the play. If the O-line whiffs on a play, Manning can normally overcome that mistake based on his pre-snap reads, quick release, and knowledge of the opponents' tendencies.
But when Manning doesn't have the knowledge/data of a team to make consistently good pre-snap reads, and the O-line is also lost on who to block, not giving him any time to make reads during the play, well...it's a failure. Combine that with a defense that is struggling to stop a team with a strong run game, getting more and more exhausted as the game wears on, and it's an embarrassing failure.
So looking at these factors, is it really fair to say that the reason the Colts lose in the playoffs is because they rest their players? Do the Colts simply choke in the playoffs? I don’t think so.
If anything, resting the players puts them in better physical shape than they otherwise would be, giving them a better chance of being able to use physical attributes to overcome whatever may be lacking from their database in their mental preparation. And one cannot say they choke in the playoffs, because for it to count as a choke, it has to be a failure in a situation where you would normally succeed.
If it had to do with rest or choking, then those losses would be limited to the playoffs, and the fact is, the Colts struggled against those types of teams in the regular season when they faced them. It didn't matter if it was a playoff game or the opening game of the regular season.
But the perception was that it was limited to the playoffs. They played very few of those teams during the regular season, so they'd finish with 12+ wins and those shortcomings weren't apparent going into the playoffs. And then the Colts would end up facing one of those teams in their first playoff game, and lose.
Everybody would say Manning choked. Everybody would say they should not have rested their players. But I do not think it is the pressure of the playoffs, or a lack of continuity because of sitting the bench in the last couple of regular season games.
The Colts just simply struggled against those types of teams period. The fact that it happened in the playoffs is just coincidence, because that's when they faced those teams most often. It wasn't like the Patriots only beat the Colts in the postseason back then. The Patriots beat the Colts during the regular season too.
Of course, that was then, in recent years, the Colts have handled the Patriots in regular season and postseason alike; Manning apparently has enough pages filled in his notebook on them.
But what does all of this mean for this postseason and the Colts' chances of getting to the big game? The Colts defense has changed. They are more able to stop the run, and they are more aggressive and less predictable.
They have more depth in the front seven, allowing them to stay fresh throughout a game. This defense gives the offense the confidence to play their game, without stepping outside of itself or taking chances that can result in turnovers.
If the Colts come out against the Ravens whom they have plenty of wins against, and play them tough, look good, and come out with a win, I think that adds a little validity to my theory. If they come out, play flat, struggle to move the ball offensively, and exit the playoffs in their first round again. Well, I guess they should not have rested their players.
If this weekend's games go according to Hoyle, and the Colts face the Chargers in the AFC Championship game, it will be interesting to see if Manning has enough in that notebook this time.