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2014 NFL Divisional Round Preview: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

The Colts will see a familiar #18 across the way this Sunday, as they try to advance to their first AFC Championship game since 2009.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Colts get to face an old friend Sunday afternoon in the Rocky Mountains, as the Colts travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning (he used to play in Indianapolis) and the Broncos in the NFL's Divisional Round. It's the second straight year the Colts have made it to the second weekend of the Playoffs, with this year's 26-10 win over the Bengals a much easier opening round victory than last year's furious 45-44 come-from-behind win over the Chiefs. Is that an omen that things will go a little better this time around against a team coming off of a bye? We'll be finding out soon enough.

It seems like ages ago these two teams played each other in Week 1, a 31-24 Broncos win that actually wasn't as close as the score indicates. The Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead thanks to a trifecta of Julius Thomas first half touchdowns, held a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and a pair of late Colts touchdowns made the game closer than it seemed. We'll talk about certain areas where the Colts really struggled in that first game in our keys, as a couple of them are areas that I think could be big advantages for the Colts this time around.

We've seen this Manning guy play quite a few Playoff games in the past, and he's had what I'd consider a star-crossed career. I'm not going to use this preview article to chronicle the ups and downs of Manning's Playoff performance, but given the audience here I think I'm pretty safe saying he gets a lot of undue blame for some Playoff losses, even when he plays outstandingly <cough>Super Bowl XLIV<cough>. Last year he played really well in their two Playoff wins (not big games), but really struggled against Seattle, so that's all anyone remembers. While many in the media will tip the scales because Manning "can't win in the Playoffs", we, the Colts fanbase, should absolutely know better than to take any of these people as having respected opinions. There's a chance the Colts go out to Denver and win Sunday, but it's an even smaller chance the reason for that happening will be directly attributable to Peyton Manning. Don't fall into that trap. We know better.

The Colts and Broncos have played twice before in the Playoffs, after both the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and they might have been Manning's two best Playoff games ever (along with Chiefs 2003 and Jets 2009). The 2003 game, a 41-10 thumping just two weeks removed from one of the Colts worst games of that era, Manning was only 22 for 26, 377 yards and five TDs, getting his first Playoff win in style. The 2004 game wasn't quite on that level (he did throw an interception), but was still a 49-24 pounding the following year, led by Manning's 27 for 33, 467 yards and four TDs. Broncos fans don't have fond memories of playing the Colts in the Playoffs, but their biggest nightmare just happens to now be wearing orange.

Let's take a look at the numbers and see where the Colts need to do well to win:

Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Broncos (Adjusted):

Statistic Colts Broncos
Offense Rank Defense Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
DSR 72.3% 8 66.0% 3 76.2% 2 66.6% 5
ANPY/A 6.998 5 5.531 16 7.456 2 4.473 4
Turnovers 2.14 30 1.72 19 1.55 9 1.84 14
Yds/Drive 31.95 11 27.61 7 34.77 4 24.45 2
ToP/Drive 2:38.0 22 2:26.0 2 2:44.0 14 2:26.0 1
Yds/Play 5.818 4 5.102 12 5.993 2 4.571 2
Orange Zone Eff 57.6% 11 59.4% 26 66.6% 1 62.6% 30
First Downs/Drive 1.76 14 1.56 6 1.95 6 1.58 7
3rd/4th Down 41.1% 13 33.6% 2 45.3% 2 36.1% 11
Avg Start Pos 30.5 15 27.7 3 31.5 7 29.5 16
3 and Outs 4.00 22 4.87 3 3.38 12 5.14 1
RZ Eff 66.2% 14 67.9% 22 76.1% 2 68.4% 23
Plays/Drive 5.530 20 5.273 2 5.810 13 5.309 4
Penalty Yds / Play 0.764 11 0.822 17 0.960 25 0.717 26
RB Success 40.7% 24 46.4% 24 42.8% 17 38.7% 4
Yds/Carry 3.85 23 4.56 28 3.91 20 3.51 3
Overall 13 8 5 2

Keys to the Game:

  • The first thing you should notice, and is backed up by the numbers at Football Outsiders, is that the Defenses for each team rank higher than the Offenses. The Quarterbacks are obviously going to dominate the headlines, but the Defenses, for both teams throughout the season, are the stronger units. Just let that sink in a bit.
  • Both teams are excellent at moving the ball down the field (Drive Success Rates in top 10 for both), and both teams are excellent at stopping other teams moving the ball down the field (DSR in top 5 for both). These two teams rank 1 and 2 in Time of Possesion per Drive on Defense, so long drives will be at a premium. Extended drives will have a big impact on the game.
  • Along those same lines, Starting Field Position will be crucial, as it has been all year across the NFL, and it especially is so in the Playoffs. Couple in the above bullet, and having to drive less distance for points is a clear path to victory. Starting inside the 20 every time will almost certainly lead to disaster.
  • The biggest area where the Colts can improve, and the Broncos Defense's worst stats, are in the Orange and Red Zone. The Colts struggled scoring points after drives in the first game, scoring just two TDs in five trips inside the Broncos 35, four of which ended in the Red Zone. They turned the ball over at the 1 on downs, and Luck threw a 4th quarter interception after a successful onside kick. If the Colts want any chance of winning, they absolutely cannot leave points on the field.
  • Likewise, the Colts Defense, which hasn't been good either when backed up deep in their own territory, faces the league's best Offense when they get down close. If we see Conner Barth trot on the field, and it isn't for an extra point, Colts fans should be celebrating.
  • The Colts hit several big plays in the first game (6.5 Yards per Play), and held the Broncos, who rank 2nd in the NFL, to just 4.5. With the strength of both Defenses in their ability to not allow long drives, whoever can hit a big play or two will be at a big advantage. The Colts won this battle the first time around, and they'll have to do it again Sunday.
  • The Broncos run Defense is one of the best in the league. Expect any damage done by the RBs to be in the screen and dump-off passing game, because they won't be able to run for much. On the flip side, C.J. Anderson has had a big role in the Broncos Offense the last month of the season, and he's been very good. Expect to see a good dose of him, but I could also imagine his role was expanded late to help with a battered-and-bruised Manning, saving some for the Playoff run.

My non-scientific observations of Colts fans/media/national pundits seem to think the Colts have a real chance of going into Denver and winning Sunday. There's excitement after the relatively easy win last weekend, the fact that Manning is facing his former team and might be a bit banged up, and Andrew Luck played possibly his best game as a Colt last week. But this is a very, very tall mountain to climb for a Colts team that has shown very little fight against elite Quarterbacks this year. Add in the fact that the Broncos over the past 3 seasons have a 24-3 record at home, 8-0 this season, and it's not the cakewalk some want to make it out to be.

The 2014 Colts have beaten up on all the teams they should beat up on, but haven't shown an ability to even compete against top-level competition. I so want to pick the Colts to win Sunday, and I think they have a shot to do so, but until they actually show us they can do it against a top-level team, I just can't say they'll win. This season ends the same way last season ended: a loss in the Divisional Round to a better team on the road. I don't think it'll be that high scoring (remember, Defense > Offense for both teams), and it'll come down to a missed 2 pointer by the Colts late. I hope I'm wrong.

Broncos 24, Colts 22