Despite several bumps in the road, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts find themselves atop the AFC South with a 6-3 record, winning four out of the last five games.
There are a few teams in the AFC in which I consider to be elite title contenders; the Pittsburgh Steelers (despite their shellacking on national television), the New York Jets, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. You could argue the Ravens and I wouldn't completely disagree with you because they have beaten two of the teams I listed but I'm just not confident they could beat those same teams in January.
Any of the teams listed above could be given the dubious distinction of "the team to beat" but usually if I'm not mistaken, that title is given to the defending conference champion, which in this case would be the Colts. The Colts will do everything in their power to avoid relinquishing that title.
This week the Colts play one of those elite title contenders in the AFC, the New England Patriots and the following are the Colts' keys to maintaining their standing amongst the elite.
I figured I would get the most obvious out of the way first, Peyton Manning is the league's best. He sets the bar nearly every week (even if he only garnered me seven fantasy points this week, which directly contributed to a loss that pushed me out of first place).
Manning is the second most reliable at his position with the game on the line (I still give this title to Sir Tom Brady, he's not a knight but he should be).
He is the answer to almost every weakness Indy has. No running game? No problem, they have Peyton Manning. The defense is small and is susceptible to the run? No problem, Peyton Manning will keep the defense off the field. Dallas Clark is on the IR? No problem, they have Peyton Manning who can make Jacob Tamme look like Clark without the facial hair.
The guy makes average players good and good players great, he is the Steve Nash of the NFL. He distributes the ball evenly across the board and always seems to find the hot hand. If there is a weakness in the defense, he will find and exploit it.
I would say they should make a movie about Manning but they already have, it's called Ocean's 11. He's the ring leader and if George Clooney has taught us anything, it's that the house always wins, unless you bet big when you get that perfect hand. In that case, my money is on Peyton Manning.
Unfortunately for the Colts, even if Peyton plays the perfect game No. 12 on the other side could still swing the tides in New England's favor.
In the first few weeks of the season, many Colts fans wondered if Peyton Manning could survive playing the role of a human piñata. The offensive line bounced back as the season has progressed and are now tied for first in sacks allowed.
A lot of the line's improved play can be attributed to Peyton Manning's quick release and defensive formation recognition but with that being said Peyton has had a much cleaner jersey then the first few weeks of the season.
The numbers can be both deceiving and revealing when attempting to analyze Indy's offensive line play. In the first six games of the season the Colts allowed just six sacks, in the last three weeks the Colts have allowed just as many. But if you look at the number of times Manning has been hit, the number is far greater at the beginning of the season than it is now.
In the first game of the season against the Houston Texans, Manning was hit 10 times. The offensive line and Manning's offensive savvy have solved the Colts' most glaring weakness after several injuries along the offensive line.
That weakness has been hidden well in recent weeks but after the Pats' performance in that department against the Steelers, the Colts may have some issues moving the ball Sunday. An upright Peyton is a happy Peyton but Bill Belichick never seemed to be one for keeping opposing quarterbacks smiling.
Expect Belichick to try to confuse Manning early but settle for exotic blitz packages later when Manning eventually reads the defense like a 12-year old reading the newest J.K. Rowling concoction.
If the New England Patriots proved anything, other than that they are amongst the NFL's elite in their big win against Pittsburgh, it was that an effective pass rush kills. The Patriots hit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seven times and sacked him five times.
Despite Roethlisberger's more than respectable performance, the pressure affected field position and gave Tom Brady favorable opportunities to inflict plenty of damage. The Colts have two pieces on defense New England cannot claim to have, two Pro Bowl pass rushers.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have been creating havoc for years now and 2010 is no different. The duo has a combined 13.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four of which Freeney forced and 51 total tackles. Freeney has three sacks in as many games since the Colts bye week and is on pace to finish with a double digit sack total for the third consecutive year and seventh time in his nine-year career.
The tandem's ability to close out games by way of forced fumbles and/or critical sacks late in games will help a great deal against Tom Brady on Sunday and the other AFC elite come playoff time. With the lack of a consistent deep pass threat for New England, the quick pressure from Mathis and Freeney will prove to be even more critical, when Brady gets rid of the ball faster underneath to the "Little Three".
With the 17th (New England) and 27th (Indy) ranked rushing attacks, the game will likely be decided through the air, which means each secondary will play a huge part in determining the game's winner. The Colts have a much stronger secondary statistically ranking in the top 10 in the league in passing yardage allowed, so the advantage could lie with the Colts in this department.
Defending the deep ball has been Indy's strength, evidenced by their ranking in passing yardage allowed. With that being said, Tom Brady is the best quarterback this defense has faced all year and their ability to defend deep down field may matter very little due to New England's approach on offense. The Pats' small ball, intermediate passing game, is more about moving the sticks than racking up big yards down field
You could argue the Patriots may try to run the ball more because of he Colts glaring weakness in run defense, ranking 29th in the league but I doubt New England will take that approach. The Pats won't rush the ball anymore than enough to keep Indy's defense honest and in games like these, you have to dance with the date that brought you. This game really is about the two quarterbacks this year, more so even than in years past.
Both teams are quite inconsistent running the ball and each rely heavily on their quarterback's ability to complete short-to-medium range passes with a high success rate, as a way of almost replacing the running game. Therefore in a way, both Manning and Brady, despite either have Vick type speed, are their teams best option in the running game, at least as far as having the desired effect of a good running game. Moving the ball in a slower pace and burning up clock, which keeps the opposing offense off the field and the opposing defense on it.
As for the Colts, they are facing the 30th ranked passing defense and that spells trouble for New England because one, they're facing Peyton Manning and two, the Colts don't have a running game so the Patriots' defensive weakness plays right into Indy's offensive strength. It will be interesting however, to see which team has more success in this department.
Tom Brady is called the "Golden Boy" for a reason and it isn't just because he has a super model wife and is a celebrity of sorts, it's because he's perfect in a lot of ways. He has nearly flawless mechanics and as I alluded to earlier, remains arguably the best quarterback in the game come crunch time.
It goes without saying (although I'm obviously saying it anyway) that if the Colts can somehow limit Brady, this game is there's. Brady more so than ever, is the key to the Pats' offense. They don't have a sterling defense or Cory Dillon in the running game, this team leans on Brady to get the job done and evidenced by their 7-2 record, this year is no different from years past as far as results.
I want to see what the Colts' defensive approach is against the Pats and their somewhat electric offense. My guess is they play physically at the line of scrimmage with the Pats' plethora of small wide outs. Whether it will be a successful approach remains to be seen.
The New England Patriots were forced to shelve Stephen Gostkowski who is out for the season with a quad injury and signed Shayne Graham to take his place.This could affect the way the Pats approach a late game situation if in need of points late in the game.
The Colts on the other hand have New England's former kicker, Adam Vinatieri, which the Pats are more than aware of his ability to make big kicks in big situations. Obviously the edge goes to the Colts in this department and it will be interesting to see if this advantage decides the outcome on Sunday.