This weekend the Indianapolis Colts (8-4) go on the road for the first time in over a month to take on the Cleveland Browns (7-5). The Colts have won six of the last seven against the Browns, but Cleveland is in the thick of the playoff race and seeking to notch a big win to help their case toward getting there. The Colts have yet to beat a team with a winning record on the road (the Texans are 6-6) and so will be looking to do that this weekend. It hasn't been the case recently, but this Sunday's matchup between the Colts and the Browns actually features two teams with playoff hopes, and it could be a good game. Here's our preview for the matchup.
What Happened Last Week?
The Colts notched a big win over the Washington Redskins, winning 49-27. Quarterback Andrew Luck threw for a career-high five touchdown passes along with throwing for 370 yards as the Colts improved to 8-4 on the year. Donte Moncrief caught 3 passes for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns, Coby Fleener caught 4 passes for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Boom Herron rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries. The Colts' defense sacked Colt McCoy six times in the win.
For the Browns, things didn't work out so well. They lost 26-10 to the Buffalo Bills on the road and benched their quarterback during the game. Brian Hoyer wasn't getting it done, throwing two interceptions, so he was benched for rookie Johnny Manziel, who scored a touchdown rushing. Not a whole lot went right for the Browns, but they've gone back to Brian Hoyer as their starter for this weekend against the Colts.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Browns Defense
The Browns' pass defense is one of the best in the NFL this year. They rank eighth in passing yards given up per game, tied for seventh in passing touchdowns given up, first in interceptions, tied for fifth in yards per attempt allowed, third in completion percentage allowed, first in percentage of passes allowed to go for a first down, and first in opposing passer rating. Their defense also ranks ninth in the league in points per game allowed. The Colts' offense, meanwhile, is the number one passing offense in the NFL. They rank first in passing yards per game, second in passing touchdowns, eighteenth in interceptions, fourth in yards per attempt, fourteenth in completion percentage, third in percentage of passes going for a first down, and fifth in passer rating, while also boasting the league's number one scoring offense. If you didn't catch it, in other words this game will be a matchup of one of the NFL's best passing defenses against one of the NFL's best passing offenses. I think everyone, including the Browns coaches and players, know that with a quarterback like Andrew Luck and the weapons the Colts have that Indy will make plays and put up some points, but the real question is how much success Cleveland can have in limiting them (especially perhaps with turnovers) and give their offense a chance to put up points. There's no doubt that the passing game is the matchup to watch when the Colts are on offense (like it normally is).
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Browns Offense
Simply put, not having Vontae Davis on defense could be a problem - a big problem. There is no doubt that he is the team's best defensive player and is playing like the best cornerback in football this season. He is the biggest key to what the Colts try to do defensively and the contrast between the defense when he's in there and when he's not in there is stark. But Davis will miss this week's game with a concussion, meaning the Colts will have to find a way to stop one of the league's best wide receivers without their best corner. Josh Gordon has only played in two games this year for the Browns but has caught 15 passes for 195 yards. Last year, he caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards (tenth best all-time) and 9 touchdowns. Indy's ideal coverage is playing press man, though perhaps even with Davis they would have keyed more on Gordon (we won't know). But with Davis out, the Colts will likely be forced away from their "ideal" coverage a bit to try to compensate. To replace their star corner, Darius Butler will likely slide to the outside to start alongside Greg Toler in the base formation, but when going to nickel Butler will play the slot like normal and then Josh Gordy will play outside. And that's a problem. According to Pro Football Focus, nobody in the NFL (playing at least 25% of the team's snaps in coverage) has a lower opposing quarterback passer rating than Vontae Davis (41.7). Furthermore, nobody in the NFL has a higher opposing quarterback passer rating than Josh Gordy (140.6). Davis has played 391 snaps in coverage and has been thrown at 60 times, allowing just 27 catches for 331 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks. Gordy, meanwhile, has played 158 snaps in coverage and has been thrown at 28 times, allowing 18 catches for 305 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks. So yeah, when you hear Colts fans worried about Davis being out and Gordy being in, you can understand why. Add in the fact that they'll be playing a receiver like Josh Gordon and it's pretty clear what the matchup to watch is, and it's the Colts' pass defense (that already sucks at covering tight ends).
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts have lost four games this year, and all four of them have been to offenses that rank in the top six in yards per game and in the top eight in points per game. In other words, the teams that the Colts have lost to are those with great offenses. That's not the Cleveland Browns, as they rank 12th in yards per game and 22nd in points per game. They win on defense, and the Colts haven't lost to one of those teams this year - mainly thanks to Andrew Luck. In other words, the blueprint to beating the Colts is to outscore them, and there are real questions about whether the Browns can do that. Luck and the offense have been on an incredible pace this year, and despite playing one of the best pass defenses they've faced yet this year, there's not much reason to think that won't continue this week.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The Browns need a win to help their playoff chances. While this isn't to say that this game doesn't matter to the Colts, there is no doubt that it's more important to the Browns when it comes to getting to the postseason. Cleveland is a good team with a good defense that has carried them for much of the season. If Brian Hoyer can find his form from earlier in the season, he can make plays and, most importantly, not turn the ball over. If Hoyer is playing like he was earlier and the defense is playing like they have for much of the season, the Colts will be in for a tough test this weekend, and it's very possible that the Browns could pull it out - especially since Vontae Davis is out for the Colts.
I think this one will be close. I think it will be a back-and-forth game. But ultimately, I think the Colts will pull out a win on the road. I really do think highly of Cleveland's pass defense, but I don't see any way they'll totally shut down Andrew Luck and this offense, and that means the Colts will put up some points. In turn, it will be up to the Browns to outscore them, and while there are big questions about this Colts' defense without Vontae Davis, I think the Colts will make just enough plays to come away with a hard-fought victory over a good team on the road.
Colts 28, Browns 24
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