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Indianapolis Colts vs. San Diego Chargers Preview and Prediction

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers

The Indianapolis Colts will aim for a fourth straight victory tonight when they take on the San Diego Chargers at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Andrew Luck and company also will be trying for their second win on the West Coast this season, while the Chargers would like to get back to .500 with a victory at Qualcomm Stadium.

With Luck running the show, the Colts have used a consistent rushing attack and a stingy defense to jump out to a 4-1 start and first place in the AFC South. Philip Rivers has rebounded quite nicely under first-year head coach Mike McCoy, but inopportune turnovers and a susceptible defense have cost the Chargers on more than one occasion.

4 Things to Watch

Indianapolis’ West Coast Success
This season, the AFC South teams play both the AFC and NFC West divisions. What this means is that the Colts face all four of the NFL’s West Coast-based teams – Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Tonight will be the fourth of those meetings, and Indianapolis is looking for the clean sweep. Indianapolis opened its season by beating Oakland at home, and then stunned San Francisco on the road 27-7 in Week 3. Last week, the Colts overcame a five-point, fourth-quarter deficit at home against Seattle, beating the Seahawks with 11 unanswered points to close out the game. In these three victories, the formula has been pretty simple – protect the football, capitalize on the other teams’ mistakes and stop the pass. The Colts forced a total of six takeaways in their wins over the Raiders, 49ers and Seahawks, and also returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown last week, while only committing two turnovers of their own. The defense also held these three teams to an average of 181.7 passing yards per game. San Diego enters this game with a minus-eight turnover differential, including six giveaways in its last two games alone. The Chargers are averaging more than 300 yards passing per game, but as the Colts have shown, their defense has been up to the task, no matter which time zone they are playing in.

Same Old Philip Rivers?
Last season was one Rivers would like to forget, as he finished with about as many turnovers (22 total) as touchdown passes (26), and San Diego went 7-9, costing head coach Norv Turner his job. Enter Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who together have helped resurrect Rivers’ career. Rivers already has three 400-yard passing games this season, and was among the top four quarterbacks in the four major categories – yards (1,610), touchdown passes (13), completion percentage (73.7) and passer rating (110.6) – entering Week 6. Rivers’ early success is one of the main reasons the Chargers are fifth in the NFL in total offense at 402.4 yards per game. Unfortunately, the Rivers of last season has made a few appearances during games, which is why the Chargers are just 2-3 in the standings. In the season opener, after leading Houston for much of the game, Rivers’ lone interception was returned for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter with the Texans eventually winning on a field goal as time expired. Last week, Rivers threw three picks against the Raiders, one of them in the end zone in the fourth quarter, in the Chargers’ 27-17 loss. Rivers enters this game with a respectable 13:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he has yet to lose a fumble. It’s important that he continues to perform more like the 2013 version rather than the 2012 model. The Colts’ defense has already forced 10 turnovers through five games, so you know they will be looking for more of the same tonight.

Paging Mr. Richardson
Indianapolis rocked the NFL world about a month ago when the team traded for Cleveland running back Trent Richardson, sending its 2014 first-round draft pick in exchange for the third overall selection of the ’12 draft. A bold move for so early in the season, the Colts showed the league they meant business by adding a talented back to an offense that already had a franchise quarterback and legitimate pass-catchers. As it turns out, the trade became even more important when Ahmad Bradshaw suffered what turned out to be season-ending neck injury in Week 3. Bradshaw’s injury was preceded by Vick Ballard’s torn ACL sustained in practice prior to the team’s second game. Richardson’s presence and production is needed even more now with him and Donald Brown the main ball-carriers left. While Richardson has gotten the carries (51 in three games), he is only averaging three yards per attempt with his new team, and has yet to break a run of more than 16 yards. Before his injury, Bradshaw was averaging 4.5 yards per carry and Brown has gained 8.3 in limited totes (19). Regardless, the key to this team’s success moving forward is Richardson. Indianapolis has clearly committed to the running game this season. The Colts are averaging 142 yards per game on the ground and their seven rushing touchdowns were tied for first in the NFL entering Week 6. The Chargers are allowing more than 124 yards rushing per game, so perhaps tonight this will be Richardson’s coming out party as a Colt. I’m sure the team and certainly the fans, would love to finally see some more sizable returns from their recent investment.

Leading the Charge(rs) on the Ground
San Diego entered Week 6 fifth in the league in total offense, gaining more than 400 total yards per game. The main reason for this is the right arm of Rivers, who is averaging 322 yards passing per game. As a team, the Chargers are gaining less than 92 yards rushing per contest. For the second straight season, running back Ryan Mathews has not gotten the job done, as he’s averaging 3.5 yards per carry and has one total touchdown through five games. Injury-prone is one of the labels most often used to describe the 12th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. For example, last season Mathews broke one of his collarbones on his first carry of the preseason and then after returning to action, broke the other one in the middle of the December. The injury bug struck against last week when he hurt his hamstring in practice and then played less than a quarter against the Raiders because of a concussion. Mathews has been cleared to play tonight, but he will probably split the carries fairly evenly with Danny Woodhead. The former Patriot who signed as a free agent is gaining only 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, but he’s caught 31 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. Throwing the ball hasn’t been a problem for San Diego, but Indianapolis ranks among the top passing defenses and has seven interceptions in five games. The Chargers need to do something on the ground to keep the Colts’ defense off balance. At this point, there’s no clear-cut lead dog in the Chargers’ backfield. The team just needs someone, whether it’s Mathews or Woodhead or even veteran Ronnie Brown, to make the carries they get count for something.

Indianapolis Key Player: Robert Mathis, LB
The Colts have Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and now Trent Richardson on offense, but it’s their defense that has been making the most noise to open this season. Entering Week 6, the defense ranked among the top five units against the pass, in points allowed and stopping the opponent on third down. Indianapolis is giving up 330.4 yards per game (tied for 11th), but only 201.4 of those have come via the pass. One of the reasons for this success has been the ability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, as their 15 sacks and seven interceptions can attest to. Mathis leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks with at least one in each game. His career high is 11.5, which he has done twice (2005, ’08) and he seems poised to go well beyond that total this season. San Diego has relied heavily on Philip Rivers to move the ball via the pass, so if Indianapolis wants to maintain its pass defense standing, Mathis will need to lead the charge, no pun intended. The Chargers have given up just eight sacks in five games, but the pass protection could have its hands full tonight with the league leader.

San Diego Key Player: Antonio Gates, TE
Similar to Philip Rivers, Gates also has turned back the clock to start this season, as the tight end is playing his best football in several years. Now in his 11th season with the Chargers, Gates said before the season opener that this is the healthiest he has been in a number of years, and it looks like he was telling the truth. Not only is he leading the team in receptions (32) and yards (438), he’s among the top four in catches at his position and trails only Jimmy Graham in yards. Gates has two touchdowns, but even more impressive, he’s already posted seven catches of 20 or more yards. No one on the Chargers has more than four and the seven also ranked Gates among the top 10 in the NFL entering Week 6. While he may not be as young as he once was, Gates is proving again that he’s one of the toughest matchups at tight end. If Rivers plans on making some plays against a stingy Colts’ defense, the two long-time teammates will need to hook up early and often tonight.

Final Analysis

While Denver, Kansas City and New England are getting most of the attention as the AFC’s current top teams, Indianapolis can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. A win tonight would put the Colts at 5-1 and stake them to an early two-game lead in the AFC South. Chuck Pagano’s team has already shown it can not only hang with, but beat the likes of NFC powerhouses San Francisco and Seattle.

Andrew Luck may not be filling up the stat sheet, but he’s doing what it takes to put his team in position to win, as well as making the big throw or play when it’s needed the most. Philip Rivers has gotten off to a strong start and is the main reason the Chargers are even hanging around .500, but he has a track record of coming somewhat unglued when everything’s riding on him.

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They may not be flashy, but the Colts stick to the game plan that has worked so well for them this season – run the ball consistently, limit the opponent’s passing game, win the turnover battle – and pick up their fourth victory against a West Coast-based team in the process.

Indianapolis 27, San Diego 20