This is a rematch of the Nov. 11 regular-season game won by San Diego, 23-21, in San Diego. Both teams played that game with backups in key positions. Marvin Harrison was on the sideline, but so was Chargers corner Quentin Jammer, who would have covered Harrison. But as I go through the other inactives and watch the game tape, it is clear that the Colts loss of tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Anthony Gonzalez for the game far outweighed the Chargers' loss of Luis Castillo. This time around, the injury problems will be more about how the Chargers can perform without their all-pro tight end Antonio Gates, who injured his toe last weekend in the win over Tennessee.
Unless there are some unforeseen circumstances during the game, we will not see Colts receivers like Aaron Moorehead, Craphonso Thorpe and Bryan Fletcher combining for 17 receptions. It will be Clark, Harrison and Reggie Wayne, along with Gonzalez, at the end of Peyton Manning's passes. The ripple effect of all the backup receivers on the field last time, along with a backup left tackle, was that the Chargers stuffed Joseph Addai (2.5 yards per carry) and Manning threw six interceptions, was sacked twice, hit four times and had 12 passes defended. Manning never played worse but still rallied his team, down 23-0, to a near-victory. Manning is one of the greatest at self-correcting and he has waited 63 days to correct the problems of the first game.
The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. The first Colts game started a 7-1 second half. Including last week's wild-card win, they have won seven straight and averaged 29 points a game in that stretch. Shawne Merriman needs to get to Manning if the Chargers have a chance for the upset. He didn't sack Manning the last time even though he was rushing against backup tackle Charlie Johnson. When Merriman gets to the QB at least twice in a game, the Chargers are 12-1. All eyes will be on Chargers corner Antonio Cromartie, who launched himself into the Pro Bowl when he picked off Manning three times while covering Wayne. This time, Clark will be in the slot next to Wayne and the tight end will hold off any safety help Cromartie might expect.
These are the two best teams in the NFL in turnover margin, with San Diego at plus-24 and Indianapolis at plus-18. One team is going to be out of character. The Chargers led the NFL in interceptions with 30 and had two more last week, which is the reason they led the league in turnovers. Can they get Manning to throw it to them like they did last time?
1. Colts DE Robert Mathis vs. Chargers LT Marcus McNeil: Mathis has taken over for Dwight Freeney at the RDE because of injury and he brings a similar style of rush: Built for speed with deceptive power and a relentless desire to get to the QB. The Chargers will run the ball at Mathis in hopes of wearing him down. Others have tried that plan and failed. McNeil has not had a great year, but the Chargers have only surrendered 24 sacks all season. McNeil will rarely get any help and it will be interesting to see how he stands up to Mathis without Gates there for the dump pass.
2. Colts SS Bob Sanders vs. Chargers QB Philip Rivers: Usually, I match up a safety with a tight end, but because Sanders will disguise so many things it is critical for Rivers to know where the AP defensive player of the year is and what he is doing. This is the chess match of the game. Without Gates on the field, Sanders will be free to lock on LT or blitz Rivers. He will be a very big challenge to Rivers.
3. Colts LT Tony Ugoh vs. Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman: Ugoh is getting better but still will struggle with the power rush. Merriman has to be smart and not always try to rush the edge. Manning gets rid of the ball quickly, so it is hard to get to him, but the Chargers have to try to flush him out of the pocket and that is Merriman's job. Look for a few screens to Addai on the left side to slow down the rush.
4. Colts WR Reggie Wayne vs. Chargers CB Antonio Cromartie: Cromartie might be the best corner in the game right now, with no disrespect to Champ Bailey. Wayne was literally all by himself on the field the last time these teams met. Now he is just one of four lethal weapons for the Colts and Cromartie will be isolated. Look for Wayne on a few double moves (slant and go, stop and go, post corner) and a big play before this game ends.
5. Colts C Jeff Saturday vs. Chargers NT Jamal Williams: Saturday is a crafty old veteran and Williams is one of the imposing figures in the NFL. The Chargers believe they can slow down the Colts running game without any safety help. In fact, they will invite the Colts to run with mostly pass coverage looks all game long. It all sounds good if Williams can dominate Saturday at the line of scrimmage. Last week, LenDale White and Ahmard Hall combined for 83 yards on 22 carries with their backup center in against Williams and a safety down in the box. Saturday will get some running lanes working in this game.
When the Chargers have the ball
San Diego needs L.T. to have a 150- to 200-yard day if it is going to beat the defending world champions in the RCA Dome. Rivers started slow last week and the Chargers didn't have a point at halftime against the Titans at home. Now they're on the road and a similar performance will spell disaster. Can L.T. afford to have a 7-carry, 6-yard first half with 0 receptions? Absolutely not! But the Colts defense is very underrated and it swarms to the football. Tomlinson will not go far without Sanders and company meeting him, and I could see some early frustration on the Chargers sidelines between Rivers and L.T.
The Chargers would love to control the clock and keep the Colts offense off the field -- so would everyone else who plays against Peyton Manning! It's not going to happen. Sooner or later the Chargers are going to be in a shootout with the Colts, and they really can't win that kind of game. The longer the fullback can lead L.T. in the running game, the better. But when the Colts get a 10-point lead, can Norv Turner's team stick to the plan?
When the Colts have the ball
Indy has waited a long time to get its whole offense back on the field and the Colts will be ready to roll in the RCA Dome. Look for Manning to come out in a no-huddle mode with Harrison and Gonzalez to his right and Clark and Wayne to his left. The more he stretches out the double sets, the more the Chargers outside linebackers have to widen in their alignments. The wider Merriman and Shaun Phillips line up, the less likely the blitz will ever reach Manning. As soon as either backer moves inside and "hips" the defensive end, the easier it is for Manning to read the blitz and the slot receiver becomes hot.
Manning knows the Chargers corners are good players, but he will waste little time waiting to get after the Chargers safeties. Clark and Gonzalez could have big days in this game. Also, when they build their trip sets, they can isolate a corner with either Harrison or Wayne and work some double move routes. Manning will blend in his running and screen game to make sure Addai gets his 18-20 touches in the game. Merriman and Phillips have 22 sacks between them this year, but they may never get close to Manning in this game.
San Diego is a fine football team that has as many star players as the best teams in the league. The last time these two met, there were so many backups in the Colts' starting lineup that special teams suffered, and the Chargers returned the opening kickoff for a score and a second-quarter punt for a score. That will not happen again and neither will the six interceptions Manning threw in the game. I like the Colts to put 28 points on the board and I struggle to see where the Chargers can find more than 21.