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2014 NFL Wild Card Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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The Colts get a rematch from earlier this season against the Bengals, their best game of the season. Can they repeat their performance and advance to the Divisional Round for the second straight year?

Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

For the third straight year under the current management, and the 12th time in the last 13 seasons, the Colts are in the NFL Playoffs, and I have to keep reminding myself that having your favorite team make the Playoffs nearly every season for over a decade is definitely not the norm. The 2014 version will be hosting the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, which is their fourth straight year making the NFL's postseason. However, they've gone 0-3 the last three years, losing twice to the Texans in Houston and last year at home to the Chargers. I can't find any other team in NFL history to lose four straight Playoff games in four consecutive seasons, so we could be in for some history Sunday.

These two teams played back in Week 7, a 27-0 Colts bludgeoning of the Bengals. While some members of the Indianapolis media want to completely dismiss the previous meeting, there is some truth in not getting hung up too much on a previous game. It was the best performance by the Colts all season, and I subscribe to the old saying, You aren't as good as your best game, and not as bad as your worst, so chances are the Colts won't play as incredible as they did back in October. Jeremy Hill was not the lead RB in Cincinnati, and the Colts leading RB, Ahmad Bradshaw, hasn't been in the lineup for a month and a half. One thing that might be the same is the Bengals playing without star WR A.J. Green, who suffered a concussion last week against the Steelers and at the earliest won't be cleared until Saturday. While I don't see this Sunday going just like the first meeting, I think it's silly to call it meaningless.

The Bengals haven't just struggled lately in the Playoffs, as they haven't won a Playoff game since 1990 (where they beat the Houston Oilers and lost to the L.A. Raiders), a streak of eight games, and have never won a Playoff game on the road. The Colts had to come back from a million points* down last year against the Chiefs before winning 45-44, and then promptly got beat down by the Patriots the next week, so it isn't like the Colts have been all that much better in the Playoffs as of late. The Colts and Bengals have played one Playoff game against each other, all the way back in 1970, a 17-0 (Baltimore) Colts win. For those of you that don't remember the 1970 season, the Colts won Super Bowl V at the end of it. Omen?

How do these two teams stack up for Wild Card Weekend? Let's take a look at the numbers, find the keys, and pick a winner.

Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Bengals (Adjusted):

Statistic Colts Bengals
Offense Rank Defense Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
DSR 72.3% 9 66.4% 5 67.0% 23 68.2% 8
ANPY/A 6.864 5 5.649 17 5.412 17 4.385 4
Turnovers 2.22 30 1.76 19 1.89 22 1.84 13
Yds/Drive 31.41 12 28.03 7 28.28 22 29.41 15
ToP/Drive 2:36.0 23 2:27.0 2 2:36.0 24 2:41.0 15
Yds/Play 5.754 6 5.154 14 5.221 15 5.021 9
Orange Zone Eff 56.1% 14 56.8% 21 48.5% 25 43.3% 2
First Downs/Drive 1.76 13 1.59 8 1.55 24 1.73 23
3rd/4th Down 40.8% 13 33.2% 2 36.7% 22 36.2% 13
Avg Start Pos 30.4 15 28.1 6 32.4 4 29.0 12
3 and Outs 4.03 23 4.83 3 3.76 19 3.90 12
RZ Eff 64.7% 16 66.0% 18 64.7% 15 56.9% 2
Plays/Drive 5.514 21 5.294 3 5.337 26 5.866 25
Penalty Yds / Play 0.753 11 0.828 15 0.782 14 0.822 16
RB Success 41.0% 24 46.3% 23 42.0% 22 50.7% 30
Yds/Carry 3.81 23 4.51 26 4.22 14 4.38 24
Overall 13 8 22 7

Keys to the Game:

  • I think this game is squarely on the shoulders of Andrew Luck. If he plays well, the Colts win. If he doesn't, the Colts lose. Several reasons why:
    • The Bengals are the 4th best pass Defense in the NFL, and the 2nd best pass Defense on the road. They sometimes have trouble getting to the QB (probably won't with the sieve of a Colts OL), but their secondary is excellent. Luck was excellent in Week 7 (8.5 ANPY/A), so needs another day like that.
    • Turnovers: We all know about the awful job the Colts have done taking care of the football, and the majority of the issues come from Luck. Don't give them short fields, and absolutely cannot let the Defense score points. There have been only three games all season without a Turnover. Hopefully it's the fourth on Sunday, but I'm not holding my breath.
  • Another very important area Sunday will be when the Colts get inside the Bengals 35, as Cincinnati ranks 2nd in the NFL in both the Orange and Red Zones, so points will be at a premium. This did not go well for the Colts the first time around, getting just 48% and 36% respectively of the possible points, so this is a definite need for improvement area from the first time around.
  • You all know by now I'm not a "run game" guy, but I think Sunday it'll be necessary to help Luck out with the pass game, which he definitely got the first time around (66% Success Rate), and the Defense is ripe for the picking (ranked 30th in RB Success Rate). It also means if the Colts can get a lead, they should be able to salt the clock away pounding the rock.
  • On the other side of the ball, the Colts Defense opened the game with eight straight Three-and-Outs of the Bengals, and it's probably a tad too optimistic to expect the same. Many different teams have figured out how to move the ball against the Colts, so I'm sure they'll get a few first downs early in the game.
  • Along those same lines, the Colts will need to get the Bengals off the field on 3rd/4th Down, something they did exceptionally well in Week 7 (1/14). Along with Green possibly missing the game, so too may TE Jermaine Gresham, who's been fighting a back/leg injury for weeks now and looked really banged up last week.
  • With Jeremy Hill becoming such a big part of the Bengals Offense as of late, and how Andy Dalton has been running more checkdowns to settle him down, we're going to see a lot of runs at a not-that-good Colts run Defense. It's going to shorten the game significantly, so every possession will be critical.
  • I've talked about Average Starting Position being much more important this season than in years past, and historically it gains significance in the Playoffs. This game features both Pro Bowl Punters in Pat McAfee and Kevin Huber, and while both teams hope their punter never has to see the field, chances are they'll each be out there at least once. They'll have a say in the outcome of the game.

Last year we saw an Offensive shootout in the Wild Card round, but I think it'll be the complete opposite Sunday, as the Defenses will shine against shaky Offenses. I think it'll come down to the 4th quarter, and like I said in my first key: I'm putting this game on Andrew Luck's shoulders, and he's delivered almost flawlessly late in games. The Colts win with a late field goal, advancing to the Divisional Round for the 2nd straight year.

Colts 20, Bengals 17