It's playoff time in Indianapolis, and today was Blue Friday in advance of the game this Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts, winners of the AFC South and the fourth overall seed, will open their playoff campaign by hosting the Cincinnati Bengals, the fifth seed in the playoff picture. This is what teams work year round for - a shot in the playoffs. Players such as D'Qwell Jackson and Josh Cribbs will be making their postseason debut, and there's something special in the air when it comes to the playoffs. The Colts will look to open with a win and advance to the divisional round for the second straight year, but the Bengals stand in their way. Let's take a look at the matchup between the two teams.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The matchup to watch when the Colts are on offense are with their tight ends against the Bengals defense. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen provide as good of a two tight end punch as any in the league, and in fact they're the first tight end duo in league history to each catch at least eight touchdowns in the same season. Both present great receiving options for the Colts offense. When they played the Bengals in October, Fleener, Allen, and Jack Doyle combined to catch eight passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, having a major impact on the game. The tight ends will likely be just as important this Sunday for the Colts, if not more so. With Reggie Wayne battling injuries and T.Y. Hilton the only legitimate star threat among the receivers, the tight ends have stepped in. Coby Fleener had a good regular season, and Allen provided a great red zone threat. I would expect the Colts to keep Allen back in pass protection some on Sunday to compensate for Boom Herron's struggles in that area (and in turn use Boom in the passing game instead), but in the red zone you'd better watch out for him. Furthermore, Coby Fleener will likely continue to be utilized by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton as a weapon and the Bengals have to be ready for it. We know the Colts will be passing the football a lot this weekend, and they'll likely try to incorporate the tight ends into the game plan quite a bit.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Bengals Offense
This one is pretty easy, and it's because there's one way I see the Bengals being able to win: by having success running the football. When the Colts last played the Bengals, running back Jeremy Hill had yet to really break out and he received just four carries in the game in Indy. Since then, he has taken over as a legitimate number one back and a real threat running the football. On the year, the rookie rushed for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and he also caught 27 passes for 215 yards. Along with Hill, the Bengals have running back Giovani Bernard, who provides a great number two back in a split back system. Bernard rushed for 680 yards and five scores this year while averaging 4.0 yards per carry, and he also added 43 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns receiving. The Bengals are stupid if they don't run the football a lot on Sunday, and then run it some more. With A.J. Green doubtful and Andy Dalton at quarterback, the clear strength of the Bengals offense is through their running game - and the Colts have shown that they're susceptible against the run. While no game has been as bad as the Patriots game was (when Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards on the Colts), the team hasn't been great at stopping the run this season, and with the threat the Cincinnati run game provides this is easily the matchup to watch. If the Colts can stop the Bengals run game and force them to pass to win, things will likely work out very nicely for Indianapolis. But if Cincinnati can cause the Colts trouble with the run game, then the Bengals will have a great shot at pulling out the victory.
Why the Colts Will Win
I'll defer to Colts safety Mike Adams here for the reason(s) why the Colts could win. He was asked earlier in the week why he thought the Colts could make some noise and go on a run in the playoffs, and he turned around and pointed at quarterback Andrew Luck's locker. And that's as accurate of an assessment as could be made, because it's pretty clear that if the Colts are going to win this game or any other game in the playoffs this year, it will be because of Andrew Luck. We know that in the NFL, a quarterback can mask over a lot of issues, and that's absolutely what Luck does with the Colts. There are other reasons why the Colts could win, including their terrific special teams units and a defense that shut out the Bengals the first time the two teams played, but it's pretty clear that if the Colts win they'll be driven by their star quarterback.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The Colts haven't been giving Luck much help recently. They have serious offensive line issues and struggle to protect Luck, they don't have much of a running game at all, and their defense has played terribly against good teams this season. While they shut out the Bengals last time, don't expect the same this week, and especially with the threat the Bengals present in the run game there's some reason for concern against this Colts' defense. And lastly, the pressure of carrying a team has gotten to Luck a bit recently, and even he has struggled some in the past month. And if the Colts don't get their turnover issues under control, they'll be beating themselves.
I don't think this Colts team is a great team, but this is a favorable matchup for the Colts in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In no way is it an easy game, but they can beat the Bengals. They'll need to play well to do so, however, and I think they'll do enough to win. I don't expect it to be a repeat of the total domination that we saw the first time the Colts and the Bengals played, but I do think that with Andrew Luck at quarterback (as opposed to Andy Dalton), the Colts will find a way to pull this one out and get the win. Let's just hope this year's Wild Card game round doesn't necessitate a massive comeback to do so.