The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Cincinnati Bengals last week in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, and because of that they have advanced to the Divisional Round, where they'll face the Denver Broncos on the road on Sunday afternoon (4:40 p.m. ET on CBS). Of course, the story lines for the game are abundant, primarily with longtime Colt and current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning facing his former team in the playoffs, something that will be a pretty historic occasion. But while that is the biggest narrative for media and fans to talk about, this game is about much more than that: it's about a trip to the AFC Championship game being on the line. For the Broncos, they're looking to return for the second straight year, and for the Colts they're looking to go to the conference title game for the first time since the 2009 season. That is on the line this week as the Colts face the Broncos in Denver, so let's get ready for the game by previewing the matchup:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Broncos Defense
This boils down to one main thing: Andrew Luck. He's going to have to play great to help carry the Colts if they hope to win, and so he's the key to the game for Indianapolis. Therefore, the matchup to watch that I'll highlight here is the Colts' offensive line trying to keep Luck upright against the Broncos' pass rush. We saw last week what Luck can do against a weak pass rush, but this week is a completely different test - though the importance of keeping Luck upright is even more important. The Colts need to give Luck time to make plays, because as we mentioned already, that's the only way they're going to win. It't a tough task, however, as the Colts' offensive line has struggled this year and the Broncos have a very good pass rush duo in Von Miller and Demarcus Ware. The two combined to record 24 sacks and three forced fumbles this season, and the Colts' line will definitely have their hands full trying to stop them. Presumably, the starting offensive line will be the same as last week, with Anthony Castonzo at left tackle (like always), Jack Mewhort at left guard, Khaled Holmes at center, Lance Louis at right guard, and Joe Reitz at right tackle. They played well a week ago, but this week will be a much tougher task. It'll be a tough task for the Colts' line and will help show whether last week's success was simply due to the opponent or an actually improved line, but regardless, the Colts keeping Andrew Luck upright has to be one of their biggest points of emphasis this week, as they have to give him time to make plays. As such, it's definitely a matchup to watch on Sunday.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Broncos Offense
There are a lot of things we could mention here. The Colts corners will have their hands full with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Wes Welker. Julius Thomas could prevent a huge mismatch once again, just like the first time the two teams played. The Colts run defense will be tested by C.J. Anderson. But the matchup to watch that I'm going with here is simple - because it's the same as when the Colts are on offense, only with a different objective. The Colts absolutely must get pressure on Peyton Manning. As important as it is for the Colts to have success against his weapons, it'll be just as important (if not more so) to pressure the quarterback. The problem with playing Peyton Manning (among a number of other problems) is that he can beat the blitz. Colts fans should know better than anyone that blitzing Peyton normally isn't a good idea for a defense - but at the same time, getting pressure on him is one of the few ways to rattle him. Granted, Peyton Manning when rattled is still better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league, but it's one of the best ways to have some success against him. In 2013, when the Colts beat the Broncos Robert Mathis played a huge role in the win, as he got pressure on his former teammate without needing a blitz. Mathis' strip sack of Manning changed the entire game. The problem the Colts ran into in week one of the 2014 season was that, without Mathis, they didn't have any pass rushers who could get consistent pressure without blitzes, and that's the same problem they're still facing. Some players, such as Erik Walden and Jonathan Newsome, have really stepped up, but the Colts' pressure on opposing quarterbacks is largely generated by the blitz, and I think it's pretty clear that they'll have to blitz Peyton on Sunday. The two keys then become these: the Colts have to disguise those blitzes so that Manning, perhaps the smartest quarterback at the line in the history of the NFL, will have a bit of trouble with them (much easier said than done), and then the Colts have to land those blitzes. If they can't get pressure even with sending guys, then it will be trouble for the defense. So while there are a lot of different matchups to be watching, one of the biggest ones will be to see if the Colts can manage to pressure Peyton without having a star pass rusher like Mathis.
Why the Colts Will Win
Watch last week's game, keying in on the quarterback position for the Colts. That number 12 under center? He's the reason the Colts have a real shot this week. Andrew Luck is a special player, and we saw that again last week as he played arguably his best game as a pro. If the Colts are going to win on Sunday, it'll take another great performance from their quarterback, and the good news for Indianapolis is that he's fully capable of that. He nearly led the Colts back from a big deficit to win in Denver in week one, as the Colts had the ball late in the fourth quarter driving for the tying score. They didn't do it then, but there's plenty of hope they might this time. The Colts haven't played well defensively against good offenses this year so they'll likely have to score points to win, but this offense is capable of doing that.
Why the Colts Won't Win
There's little margin for error this week. First and foremost, the Colts have to make sure that they don't beat themselves - which they've done a lot of recently with penalties, drops, turnovers, and various other mistakes. There's not much margin for error when playing a more talented team like the Broncos on the road. So if the Colts don't get past those and play solid fundamental football, they'll be in trouble. Furthermore, their defense has not played well against top offenses this year (at all). Manning and the Broncos offense will score points - giving the Colts' offense even less margin for error. It'll likely take the best offensive showing of the year for the Colts to pull this one out in Denver.
This is a tough one to pick. One thing is clear: the Colts absolutely have a shot, and a very clear one at that. Call it a gut feeling if you want, but I think they'll come to play. I think this game will turn into a shootout between the past of the Colts' franchise and the present/future of the Colts franchise for the right to go to the AFC Championship game, and that makes for a lot of drama. In many ways, I expect this to go a bit like the week one game. I expect the Colts to be right there in position to pull the game out in the fourth quarter, and I would not be surprised whatsoever to see some more Andrew Luck playoff magic this week in the biggest game of his career. I would not be surprised one bit. But with that said, I'm taking the Broncos in a close game, though I could see it going either way.