So much has changed since the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-0 on Oct. 19 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts (11-5) and Bengals (10-5-1) meet again in the same venue for Sunday’s AFC Wild Card playoff game.
Here are the Colts’ five keys:
1. Keep Andrew upright — Before getting to the defensive side of the Colts’ concerns, it’s fair to say that the home team won’t win this game if quarterback Andrew Luck doesn’t have time to throw. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano suggested during the week that his team would do whatever it takes, even if it meant throwing 50 times. He hopes for balance, but this sure sounds like a premonition. Look at how the Colts rallied to beat Kansas City 45-44 in last January’s AFC Wild Card playoff game at home. Luck was sacked 27 times and took 90 hits this season. The Bengals had just 20 sacks, which likely means they will blitz to try to get Luck off his game. Regardless of how the Colts’ defense plays, this team proved against the Chiefs that it can outscore an opponent in a shootout. That’s why protecting Luck is the first key.
2. Neutralize Hill — Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill finished an impressive regular season with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, a combined 395 yards and a 5.6-yard-per-carry average with three touchdowns. He ran for 1,124 yards and nine TDs this season. Forget about the last time he faced the Colts, when Hill had just 15 yards on four carries. The Bengals finally figured out that he needed to be the No. 1 guy. His five 100-yard games since included efforts of 154, 152, 147 and 146. The 147-yard game in a home win against Denver included an 85-yard touchdown run. The Colts’ run defense ranked 18th at 113.4 yards allowed per game. In the Colts’ five losses, the defense allowed 143.8 rushing yards per game, including a season-worst 246 rushing yards against New England. The Colts must keep this guy in check as well as a side order of Giovani Bernard or it opens up everything for the Bengals offense. The Bengals are 9-1-1 when they rush for at least 100 net yards.
3. Rattle Dalton — Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green has been ruled out due to a concussion, but the key is to get pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. It starts with putting him in down-and-distance disadvantages, which means getting run stops. But at some point he’s going to throw to give the offense balance and he’s had shaky postseason performances in the past. The Colts were able to hound him in the previous meeting and he was visibly frustrated. He didn’t have a run game that day, so the Colts blitzed him constantly and came away with four sacks as Dalton completed just 18-of-38 passes for 103 yards. Those numbers are probably unrealistic this time around, but the Colts are sure to bring pressure to force him to throw before he wants. That’s when mistakes happen. And if he makes more, he’ll be 0-4 in the playoffs.
4. Turnovers — This has been a constant key for the Colts. Do we really need to spit out the numbers anymore? The Colts had 31 turnovers. Luck was guilty of 22 of those, 16 of them interceptions and six on lost fumbles. While there are often contributing factors to turnovers, it’s fair to say Luck tries to extend plays to a fault, hence he’s holding the ball and trying to throw when he gets hit. He’s hopefully learned from his mistakes, not just this season but in the last postseason, when he had seven interceptions in two playoff games. That he was able to bring the Colts back with 35 second-half points against the Chiefs despite three interceptions was a credit to his unshakable resolve. But a four-interception game at New England ended the season ugly, 43-22. The Bengals have more interceptions (20) than touchdown passes allowed (18), and they’re 6-1 when winning the turnover battle. On the flip side, the Bengals have committed 26 turnovers, including Dalton being intercepted 17 times and losing two fumbles. He was sacked 23 times. The Colts’ four sacks, three against Dalton, were the most allowed by the Bengals all season.
5. Special teams — If the game is close and comes down to a kick, the Colts obviously have the advantage with kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist/holder Pat McAfee voted All-Pro first team. Vinatieri has made 30-of-31 field goals this season. McAfee set franchise records with 30 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and a 42.8-yard net average. McAfee also rarely gives opponents the opportunity to return kickoffs with a league-best 70 kickoffs. Bengals kicker Mike Nugent converted 26-of-33 field goals but had 37 touchbacks on kickoffs, which tied for 37th. That should mean Colts kick returner Josh Cribbs will have opportunities to impact the game. Bengals punter Kevin Huber averaged 42.1 net yards with 27 punts downed inside the 20. The Bengals allowed a punt-return touchdown in their 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. Bengals returner Adam Jones was selected to the All-Pro first team, so it’s imperative that McAfee drills his kickoffs for touchbacks and has excellent hang time on punts to force Jones to fair catch.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.