Division leaders square off in Lucas Oil Stadium
The Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts are two first-place NFL teams still looking for respect. The Colts (6-3) took over the top spot in the AFC South with a 34-17 drubbing of the Titans last week in Nashville. They sport the league's top overall defense and have a well-rounded offense that lacks any true superstar. A win at home against the Packers would be a true feather in their cap, perhaps proof they're a contender, and just their second victory on the season against a team with a winning record.
The Packers (7-2) are alone atop the NFC North and are perhaps the least talked about first-place team in the NFL. Are we sure they're legit? Is their annihilation in last year's NFC Championship Game still fresh in our minds? Whatever it is that's holding you back from thinking this team is a contender in the NFC, forget about it, because the Packers are this good. And they're only going to get better as their offense gets healthier.
Green Bay at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 22 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Indianapolis -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Rodgers vs. Colts' tough D
Colts head coach Frank Reich summed up this week's premiere matchup between Aaron Rodgers and his Indianapolis defense as, "Good on good." He ain't lying. But allow me to break it down just a little bit more in depth.
At 36 years old, Rodgers is still proving that he's one of the game's very best passers of all-time, currently leading the league in passer rating (116.4) and touchdown rate (8.3 percent), while ranking second in touchdown passes (26) and third in yards per attempt (8.3). Behind Rodgers' arm, the Packers are one of the best offensive units in the league. They rank third in points per game (30.3) and fifth in yards per play (6.2). Yes, Frank, you're right — that is good.
For as great as the Packers offense has been in head coach Matt LaFleur's second season, this Colts defense easily poses the biggest threat Green Bay has faced this season. Outside of a ridiculously banged-up 49ers defense, the Packers haven't faced a pass defense marked higher than 17th this season, and the Colts are arguably the best in the league at shutting down quarterbacks. They're first in passer rating allowed (78.9), second in yards per game (198.7), and fifth in both completion percentage (62.2 percent) and yards per attempts (6.8).
On the flip side, the Colts haven't faced a quarterback this season that is in Rodgers' class. Gardner Minshew II, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Lamar Jackson, and Sam Darnold aren't exactly keeping defensive coordinators up late wondering how they're going to stop them in the passing game. None of these signal-callers have a passer rating near 100 this season. But the Colts did show out against Ryan Tannehill last Thursday night, holding him to a season-low 83.4 rating, 147 yards, and just 5.4 yards per attempt. Reich is right again.
One specific matchup to keep an eye on is the Packers' leading receiver Davante Adams and Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Adams (741 yards, 9 touchdowns) is easily Rodgers' favorite target, and Rhodes has proven he's still one of the better lockdown corners in the league (10 pass breakups, 2 interceptions) after the Vikings cut him earlier in the year. It should be an old, fun NFC North rivalry renewed, although Adams is dealing with an ankle injury, so his status leading into this game needs to be monitored.
2. Nyheim Hines
With Marlon Mack out for the year and rookie Jonathan Taylor and backup Jordan Wilkins not providing much of a spark, the Colts have been leaning more Hines in the ground game. The third-year back from NC State has been a Swiss Army knife for the Colts since they drafted him in 2018. He returns punts and kickoffs, he lines up in the slot, or at wide receiver, and he carries the ball from the backfield.
With Taylor and Wilkins both struggling, Hines was the featured back last week against Tennessee. True to form, he did a little bit of everything against the Titans, rushing for 70 yards on 12 carries and picking up his first touchdown on the ground since Week 1. He also caught five passes out of the backfield for 45 yards and another score. Reich switched the Colts to a higher-tempo offensive scheme last week that worked Hines into the game plan perfectly. Quick swing passes and out routes were used to get Hines in space while the Titans D was still adjusting pre-snap.
Hines' ability to set up blockers and throw defenders off their pursuit angles is what makes him so dangerous, something he learned from returning punts. Perhaps you'll recall last season when he returned two punts returned for touchdowns against the Panthers. It's that open-field running ability that makes Hines so vital to the Colts' passing game, as he is the team's leading receiver this season with 33 catches and four touchdowns.
When Philip Rivers targets Hines at least five times a game this season, the Colts average 33 points per contest. If he is targeted less than five times, that average drops to 20 points per game, according to stampedeblue.com. As Hines go, the Colts go. Indy could give the dynamic and explosive Hines upwards of 20 touches against Green Bay on Sunday afternoon.
The Packers' offense goes as Rodgers goes, obviously. And Rodgers likes to go to Adams — a lot. Adams' team-leading 61 receptions are 33 more than the next Green Bay pass catcher, while his 81 targets in just seven games are nearly double that of any other teammate (Marquez Valdes-Scantling is second at 45). With the Colts likely to concentrate highly on taking away Adams as much as possible, who with Rodgers focus on as his secondary targets?
I've got my eye on wide receiver Allen Lazard. Lazard was recently activated from injured reserve after missing the last six weeks and could return to the lineup on Sunday. In Lazard, Rodgers has a huge target. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound former practice squad player had a career game in Week 3 against New Orleans when he hauled in six catches for 146 yards and a score. His presence will give Rodgers another viable weapon in the passing game alongside Adams and red-zone threat Robert Tonyan.
For Indianapolis, I'm keeping tabs on rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The Colts' first selection in the 2020 draft, and 34th overall pick, was tapped as the heir apparent to the aging T.Y. Hilton.
Pittman caught nine passes on 12 targets in the season's first few weeks, but a leg injury required minor surgery after Week 3. He's played in the last three games but really broke out last week against the Titans. He had his best game yet with seven catches for 101 yards. While the Colts have plenty of good and reliable receiving options, like Zach Pascal and Moe Allie-Cox, they drafted Pittman to be the dude. Look for Rivers to target Pittman on his first career touchdown catch on Sunday against Green Bay.
It seems that we've rarely gotten any "great" matchups so far this NFL season, but this game might actually live up to that billing. I'm personally excited to watch how two of the best offensive-minded head coaches in the NFL in Matt LaFleur and Frank Reich play chess against one another. Despite how evenly matched these two squads are, for my money, it's hard to go against the smoothest throwing quarterback the game has ever seen in Aaron Rodgers. Give me the Packers by a score on the road. Enjoy the good on good, everyone.
Prediction: Packers 24, Colts 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.