It has been a different week thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, but the Indianapolis Colts have still been preparing for their matchup on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Tampa Bay is 5-5 and is playing much better recently, having won 4 of their last 6 games behind an impressive offensive attack. Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has been playing better (last week he threw five touchdowns without an interception) while running back Doug Martin has had a great bounceback year. Receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson provide a dangerous duo to defend against, and Tampa Bay's offense in turn has been a tough task for opponents. Their defense has been less impressive, but make no mistake about it: the Buccaneers are playing good football right now and are looking to make a push for a playoff spot.
The Colts and Buccaneers don't play often, and in fact this will be Tampa Bay's first game in Lucas Oil Stadium, since their last trip to Indianapolis was in 2007. The Colts hold a 7-5 all-time advantage over Tampa Bay, including victories in two of the last three games. Those last three games have been interesting, to say the least. In 2011, the two teams met on Monday Night Football and, while the Colts lost 24-17, that game gave Colts fans hope that perhaps Curtis Painter wouldn't be too bad (oops). In 2007, the Colts defeated the Bucs in blowout fashion 33-14 at home behind 121 yards and two touchdowns rushing by Kenton Keith (everyone remembers him, right?). And then in 2003, the Colts played at Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football, fell behind 35-14 midway through the fourth quarter. In one of the craziest comebacks in NFL history, the Colts scored 21 points in the final 4:15 of regulation to tie it up, then in overtime Mike Vanderjagt hit the game-winner to give the Colts the stunning 38-35 victory.
Both the Colts and the Buccaneers are looking to compete for a playoff spot in the final month of the season, and while they're not in the same conference a win would still be a nice boost toward that goal. While at the beginning of the season this seemed like a rather easy game for the Colts (only by comparison to the other games, as no game is easy in the NFL). Instead, it's a very intriguing matchup between these teams that could end up being a competitive game.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense
I've said this the past several weeks and I'll say it again here: the biggest matchup for the Colts' offense isn't so much any one particular matchup but rather simply protecting the football. Of course, that's pretty generic and it should be universally true fore every team, but the Colts have struggled in this area so far this season. The Colts have turned the football over 22 times this season, the most in the NFL (that's 2.2 turnovers per game!). In wins, the Colts have turned the ball over 7 times, while in losses they have turned the football over 15 times. I don't think that's a coincidence. The biggest thing for the Colts is to protect the football and make smart decisions. Against the Falcons, the Colts turned the football over three times, and that was a large factor in their double-digit deficit - even though the defense allowed zero points combined off of those three turnovers! The Colts' offense was stalling, and they can't count on their defense to be as effective every time. Against a Buccaneers team that can score points, the Colts can't put their defense in bad situations. Even if they have to punt, that's making Tampa Bay drive the length of the field. It's really not that complicated: if the Colts protect the football, they should be able to win. The problem is that Indy seems to have a big problem playing smart, turnover-free football, and if that continues on Sunday, it will make a tough game even tougher.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Buccaneers Offense
The biggest key for the Colts' defense on Sunday will be containing the Buccaneers' run game. Running back Doug Martin has enjoyed a big bounce back season, rushing for 941 yards and three scores through ten games, averaging five yards per carry. Martin, in fact, is second in the NFL in rushing behind only the Vikings' Adrian Peterson. His backup, Charles Sims, has provided a nice complementary role to Martin, as he has rushed for 345 yards while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. For as good as Jameis Winston has been recently, this offense still runs through their run game, particularly behind Martin. Last week, Martin rushed for 235 yards against the Eagles, averaging 8.7 yards per carry, and he has topped 100 yards in four different games. The Colts need to find a way to slow down Martin and force the rookie quarterback to beat them on the road. Winston has impressed, but the best chance the Colts have against this offense is to make Winston have to do everything. Of course, that's much easier said than done, especially now that the Colts lost Henry Anderson for the year in week nine. He was their best run defender, so this week will be a big test for the players replacing him - a rotation of Billy Winn, Zach Kerr, and T.Y. McGill. They will also need Kendall Langford and David Parry to step up, but particularly the inside linebackers. Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson have been fantastic recently and the Colts really need that to continue against Tampa Bay's run game.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts haven't been overly impressive in a number of their wins this year, but they've found ways to get it done. Their defense has stepped up at times (perhaps none more so than last week against the Falcons), and if the offense doesn't put them in poor situations due to turnovers they should be able to have some success on Sunday against Tampa Bay. And while the offense hasn't been explosive or among the best in the league with Matt Hasselbeck under center, they've shown the ability to mount a handful of impressive drives, and if they can turn those into points (preferably touchdowns) while protecting the football throughout the game, they should be able to put up enough points.
Why the Colts Won't Win
If the Colts' defense doesn't step up, the Buccaneers' offense will put up some points. That would put Indy in the situation where they would need to get into a shootout, something that isn't favorable for them with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Furthermore, they can't afford to turn the football over like they have often this year (including last week). If they are careless with the football and give it to Tampa Bay, that likely won't turn out well for the Colts. Things could get out of hand quickly if the Colts can't protect the football or play good defense - and if both of those happen, the Colts won't have a chance.
I think this game will be a tough one for both teams. It probably won't be the prettiest game, but it should be a competitive one that goes down to the fourth quarter. It's a matchup of the oldest quarterback in the NFL vs. the youngest quarterback in the NFL, and while Jameis Winston has looked impressive this season and looks like Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future, I think the veteran Matt Hasselbeck's team finds a way to get it done late in the game against a good Buccaneers team - perhaps behind another game-winning field goal from 42-year old Adam Vinatieri.