Why the Indianapolis Colts will win:
1. They're playing at home, which in recent years hasn't been a big issue for the Colts. They've usually played as well on the road as they have at home, but that hasn't been the case this year. In fact, all four of their regular season losses came while on the road.
The Colts posted their first perfect home season since 1958, the year that the Colts defeated the Giants in "The Greatest Game Every Played" for the NFL Championship. It's truly hard to explain why, but this team has simply played better all-around football during the second half of the year at home than away.
2. Bob Sanders is back. The Pro Bowl safety is one of the Colts' best and inspiring tacklers, so he'll add some punch to their run defense. The Colts are 3-1 this season in the games that Sanders has played in. Paired up with rookie Antoine Bethea, who knocked Mike Doss out of the starting lineup with his sure tackling skills, the Colts will be solidified at the safety positions.
The return of Sanders does one other very important thing for the Colts defense. It allows them to return former first-round pick Marlin Jackson back to the nickel back position instead of filling in at safety as he has during most of the second half of the season. That not only improves their pass defense, it puts a nickel back on the field who can help against the run, as Jackson is a hitter as well.
3. Indy's coverage teams should get a shot in the arm this week. The Colts have struggled with special teams coverage as many of last year's special teams stars became starters this year. Head coach Tony Dungy said earlier this week that the Colts would change up some personnel on those units, even if it meant using some starters to boost the talent level and productivity.
A few of the former special teams stars that could be joining the coverage teams this week could include Marlin Jackson and defensive end Robert Mathis. The Colts recognize that the Chiefs offense will already be a handful without providing them with great field position. They should be able to keep the Chiefs from gaining the great field position that some Colts opponents enjoyed this season.
4. Two simple words: Peyton Manning. Once again, he finished at the top of the league with a 101.0 quarterback ranking - the only quarterback at or above the 100 mark for the season. His 65 percent completion rate was third-best in the league and his 4,397 passing yards was second best. But beyond the numbers, it's his field intelligence that gives him such a great edge out there.
He'll be going up against a team that plays the same defense the Colts use, so he'll be very familiar with it's strengths and weaknesses. Manning also just got the third important cog in his receiver arsenal back last week - tight end Dallas Clark- and he could even have slot receiver Ricky Proehl back as well. He'll have plenty of targets to work with unlike previous weeks.
5. Experience. This Colts team has plenty of playoff experience under its belt. They've been in the playoffs for five consecutive years and seven of the last eight, so there won't be any panic in the RCA Dome from these players. They also enter these playoffs with their starters having played right up through the end of the regular season, which should help ensure that they are sharp.
The losses they took down the stretch this year also served as a reality check that they aren't going to be able to coast deep into the playoffs. This team knows from the experiences of this difficult season as well as their past playoff results that they'll have to be alert and execute throughout the game, so you shouldn't see any let down by this group during the entire sixty minutes.
Why the Kansas City Chiefs will win:
1. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson will leave a wake of Indianapolis defenders on the RCA turf on Saturday. By the third quarter the Colts defenders will be so beat up by the pounding that LJ delivers they'll wish the franchise had never left Baltimore. I expect Johnson and the Chiefs will set a single-game playoff rushing record.
2. The Chiefs signed cornerback Ty Law for one reason: if they made the playoffs they'd have an experienced cornerback that could shut down a quarterback like Peyton Manning. Law has picked off Manning seven times in his career. He should get at least one more on Saturday.
He may be older, slower and on the downside of his career but he's in Manning's head. The last time they met in the playoffs, Law baited Manning into a trio of interceptions.
3. Chiefs quarterback Trent Green has struggled the last five games, but there isn't another player on this roster that took the loss to the Colts back in 2003 harder. This time around his receivers hopefully won't suffer a case of the drops. He's still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. For five seasons Green has been in the top five in virtually every passing statistic.
The Colts will be so worried about stopping Johnson they'll forget about tight end Tony Gonzalez, who should be wide open time and again in the middle of Indy's Cover Two. Green's poor play this season could be a precursor to a breakout game. He's more than due. He won't need to do much Saturday but he'll do more than enough to keep the Colts guessing.
4. Linebacker Derrick Johnson has put together another spectacular season. Last week he was used as a down lineman. With the Chiefs almost certain to blitz 20 to 30 times on Saturday, he could be a huge factor in keeping the Colts from converting third downs. He's fast enough to get to the quarterback, talented enough to blow up a run and quick enough to keep Colts tight end Dallas Clark in check.
Johnson has played in the shadow of Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, as both were drafted in the top half of the first round in 2005. Merriman gets the ink because of his sack numbers, but Johnson is the more well-rounded linebacker. The Colts will see that first hand on Saturday.
5. Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards has taken on a new attitude this week with the media. He's more passionate and focused. He doesn't want any part in the notion that the Chiefs backed into the playoffs. His team earned it by winning their final two games and he delivered a hard-hitting message to his players on Monday. Going into this game they're about as focused and confident as I've seen this season. They come into this game with zero expectations and zero pressure. They have nothing to lose.
Who Will Win and Why?
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