The Indianapolis Colts recently have struggled against teams that run 3-4 defenses.
But will that carry over Saturday night against a red-hot Chargers team that has averaged 37.3 points during a four-game winning streak that brought them the AFC West title and a playoff spot? Can San Diego slow down an even-hotter Indianapolis team that has won nine straight and is averaging 25.3 points per game since its last loss?
Let's break it down.
When the Colts have the ball
The Colts were 3-4 after seven games this season, and Manning -- trying to rebound from offseason knee surgery -- was under heavy pressure because of injuries along the offensive line and an ineffective running game. Indianapolis' rushing attack never really came around and is ranked 31st in the NFL (79.6 yards per game), but Manning returned to MVP form, and his pass protection dramatically improved.
During the Colts' nine-game winning streak, Manning has thrown 17 touchdown passes with just three interceptions while completing 72 percent of his passes. The Chargers are 31st in the league against the pass (247.4 yards per game), so Manning won't waste time calling for runs against a defense that held Indianapolis to 2 yards or less on 12 of its carries in the last meeting. If Manning catches San Diego in a defensive personnel group that he likes, he'll go no-huddle and try to take advantage of a weakness. It's an old trick of his, but he must be careful because it caused a few penalties during the four-game stretch I studied.
Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is much more aggressive than Ted Cottrell, the man he replaced during the season. Rivera likes to bring pressure, but it will be difficult for San Diego to get to Manning before he releases the ball because of Indianapolis' spread passing attack. I think the Chargers' best chance to slow down the Colts' passing game is to constantly dare Indianapolis to run the ball with two high safeties and a man underneath coverage scheme. The Chargers didn't sack Denver Broncos QB Jay Cutler last week, and I'd be surprised if they get to Manning.
When the Chargers have the ball
San Diego became the first team to make the playoffs after starting 4-8, and in the four-game winning streak to claim the AFC West, QB Philip Rivers threw 11 touchdown passes and just one interception. Now he faces the league's No. 6 pass defense (188.1 yards per game).
The last time these teams met, Rivers threw just 14 passes and completed 10, but this game should be a lot different. Colts LB Gary Brackett will miss this game because of a leg injury, and that will make it tough on the 24th-ranked ranked run defense (122.9 yards per game). San Diego RB LaDainian Tomlinson. who has averaged 104 rushing yards in five games against Indianapolis, regained his old form last week against Denver, but he's still nursing a groin injury.
The more I watch the Chargers play, the more I think they will establish a solid running game against the Colts, and the play-action pass off the run will be tough to stop. Indianapolis' defensive philosophy is to rush the passer on every down and tackle the run on the way to the QB. Colts DEs Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were rested last week and will cause major problems for the Chargers' offensive tackles in passing situations.
The bottom line
The Chargers will play the Colts tough and are counting on Manning to throw an interception or two (he has 11 in his last five games against San Diego). But in the showdown of two quarterbacks who have combined for 61 touchdown passes this season, I'll take Manning to win the game on a late drive.