Both teams sit at 8-4, with the Colts holding the three seed thanks to a better win percentage in conference games. The Bengals are undefeated at home (5-0), while the Colts are sporting a 4-2 record on the road.
This game is likely to be ugly. Current weather reports have a high of 33-degrees and snow in the forecast for Sunday. This is on the heels of the storm currently slamming the midwest.
What does it mean? Well, both team will likely favor the run game. There also a good chance of higher than normal turnovers in the sloppy conditions to go along with a low scoring affair.
After experimenting with the offensive line last week, the Colts will be without Jeff Linkenbach who has a quad injury. Also out is Ricky Jean-Francois with a foot injury (which may sideline him for a few weeks). As for the rest of the rost, rookie guard Hugh Thornton is questionable with a neck injury and CB Greg Toler is still battling a groin injury and is also questionable.
Here’s what to watch for:
- The Run Game. The Colts really need to get out and establish their rushing attack early in this game. Passing is going to be difficult if the weather is bad, and the power run game will actually be important. Injuries have hurt the offensive line pretty badly this week, but not having Linkenbach starting is a good thing. He was really terrible last week, nearly matching Mike McGlynn’s worst performances this season bad. Regardless, the Colts have to get something going on the ground. Especially since the passing game has been so ineffective lately. Speaking of passing…
- A Receiver Stepping Up. Andrew Luck hasn’t had a reliable target since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. Every NFL team has a “Next Man Up” philosophy, but for the Colts that hasn’t happened. Darrius Heyward-Bey drops passes at an alarming rate, while Da’Rick Rogers and Lavon Brazill are untested and unproven. The latter two can’t possible be worse than DHB. What are they going to do? Drop passes? TY Hilton is very talented, but its clear that at this stage in his development he isn’t a number one wide receiver. He can’t consistently get open against starting cornerbacks and becomes less effective as a deep threat. Eventually someone has to step up and start hauling in passes.
- Better Luck. Luck is a very talented quarterback, but seems to have regressed in some key areas. One of those is his timing. He is holding the ball for far too long in the pocket. He either has to a) get the ball out quicker, or b) bail and scramble quicker. It doesn’t help that the coaches seem to minimize his success with the play calling (i.e. not enough quick passes, not moving the pocket, etc). If he is more decisive this week, the Colts will have a good chance of success.
- Dalton. Andy Dalton. Wait, that’s the wrong Dalton. The quarterback Dalton has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. When he’s really good, the team has posted a 3-1 record, and the inverse when he’s really bad. The problem is that if he is just mediocre, then the Bengals can win this game. Basically, Colts fans need to hope he turns in one of his horrible performances that gifts the game to Indy.
- Robert Mathis can help. When Mathis plays at a high level (multiple sacks) the Colts defense looks dramatically better than it really is. Basically, Mathis is the defense right now. If he wrecks havoc in the Bengals backfield, the Colts have a good chance of winning this game. The problem is that Cincy features one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
- The Blame Game. The Colts decided in the offseason that they would build the absolute wrong kind of offense. One that was focused on running the ball through power-I sets and using a fullback (a position that’s almost extinct in the NFL). To accomplish that, they hired Pep Hamilton to run the offense. The scheme was doomed from the start, but injuries have reduced the effectiveness of this system to near zero and yet they soldier on as if nothings changed. Hamilton has started to take a lot of the blame for the recent offensive woes, but its not justified.
- Turnovers. The Bengals are second in the league in turning the ball over. Last week, the Colts had four takeaways against the Titans. If they can put together a similar performance, they’ll likely win the game. Anytime a team wins the turnover battle, their chances of victory go up substantially (as Tony Dungy said, plus-three is the golden number). If the Bengals don’t cough up the ball then I don’t see the Colts coming away with a win.
The Colts can clinch the AFC South with a win, OR a Titans loss. Tennessee faces Denver on Sunday, effectively meaning that Peyton Manning can win another AFC South title for the Colts.
Indy isn’t exactly doing anything particularly well on the field right now. Every since the bye week, the Colts have alternated between dramatic comeback wins and blowout losses.
Honestly, this feels like another loss for the Colts. There just isn’t anything about this team that screams they can win against an opponent like the Bengals.
Colts lose on the road, 28-19.
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