In every neighborhood there are a few annoying people. You know the type. Sometimes they're too noisy when you're just trying to settle in for some relaxation. Or maybe they're knocking on your door wanting to borrow everything you own. Or maybe there's some other reason that they get under your skin. But they exist in every neighborhood, in every town and every city around the country.
In the NFL neighborhood known as the AFC, the Colts have had to deal with two particularly pesky neighbors -- the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Patriots have been the most recent nemesis of the Colts, dashing their Super Bowl hopes for two consecutive years and finding ways to emerge with a victory during regular season play as well. But a few weeks ago, in front of the entire nation, the Colts brought that to an end by barging into their house and roughing them up a bit before heading back home with a 40-21 win.
This Monday Night, the Colts face another team that has brought a dark cloud to the neighborhood. A gloom as dark as the black uniforms they wear -- the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Lest you forget, the Steelers have won the last nine contests between these two clubs. And in 21 attempts, the Colts have managed to beat this team only 4 times in their history. The Steelers have knocked the Colts out of the playoffs all four times they've met in the postseason, including that dramatic AFC Championship game back in 1995 when Jim Harbaugh's 29-yard pass barely slipped off the belly and through the hands of a nearly prone Aaron Bailey.
And get this. The last time the Colts beat the Steelers, Ronald Reagan was president. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was the album of the year. Or perhaps this marker in time will speak most clearly to you -- it was the Colts first season in Indianapolis. That's right, the Colts haven't beaten the Steelers since October 21, 1984. And even then, they barely escaped with the win, a 17-16 nail-biter with quarterback Mike Pagel at the helm.
The Steelers haven't evoked as many howls of disdain from Colts fans over the past few years simply because they haven't been in their face much in recent history. In fact, the teams haven't met since 2002 when the Steelers grabbed a 28-10 victory in their only regular season matchup And that was their first meeting since 1997, the year prior to Peyton Manning's arrival in Indianapolis.
If there was ever a time to set the stage for a payback and to begin swinging the pendulum the other way, Monday Night Football is the ideal place for it. The Colts are 6-2 on Monday nights since 2000, and they averaged 40.2 points per game in their six wins. If they can put that kind of offensive production up on the scoreboard against the Steelers, Pittsburgh will be hard-pressed to match it.
In a season filled with many noteworthy statistics and streaks, two of the most prominent that can be achieved with a win Monday night -- other than the Colts staying undefeated -- include setting a franchise record for consecutive home wins (10) and achieving the franchise's 400th win dating back to 1953. The Colts would be the 14th team in the history of the NFL to achieve that mark.
Both teams enter the game with a healthy roster of players, so each team will
be able to line up their best 22 players. The Colts will focus on staying
efficient on offense and not turning over the ball to give Pittsburgh the
opportunity to grind down the clock more than necessary. The Colts offensive
line will have to be sharp against a blitzing Steelers defense to help Manning
avoid a rushed throw that could result in a turnover.
The Colts defense will have to stay in their assigned gaps and wrap up the ball carrier on the first hit -- not on the second or third opportunity far past the line of scrimmage. They will also have to step up their pass rush against Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. They've dropped from first in the league to third in sacks (32 for the season) as their success in getting to the quarterback has dropped off noticeably over the past few games.
The Steelers have to make the Colts play their game if they're going to succeed in this matchup. By running on the Colts and running down the clock, they hope to wear down the defense and keep Peyton Manning from opening up the offense like he did in the first half against Cincinnati last week. When they do pass, many eyes will be on the matchup between two Pro Bowlers -- offensive tackle Marvel Smith and defensive end Dwight Freeney. Smith missed a game last week with a high ankle sprain, but returned to practice on Thursday. It'll be interesting to see if he has the mobility to keep up with Freeney so soon after his injury. If not, the Steelers could rotate Trai Essex in to relieve Smith. But Essex didn't have a great outing against the Ravens last week, so this could be a great week for Freeney to get back into the groove with some sacks production. The Steelers surrendered six sacks to Baltimore last Sunday.
Defensively for the Steelers, they need to stop Edgerrin James while disrupting Manning with different blitz packages in hopes of confusing him and pressuring him into making some bad decisions. Stopping James, the NFL's second-leading rusher, also includes keeping him under wraps as a receiver. And the Steelers best linebacker to do that, James Farrior, will be trying out his injured knee in game action for the first time in three weeks. The Colts are likely to test that matchup if Manning sees the opportunity.
The bottom line to this game is whether or not the Colts can once again go
out and play what they refer to simply as "Colts Football", minimizing
errors and penalties. If they do that Monday night, they should be able to move
Despite the Steelers' talent and excellent coaching, they have a few key players returning to action for the first time in a few weeks, including their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. They're also on the road facing a highly focused team with offensive firepower that can create a lopsided score quickly. If the Colts can jump out to an early and sizeable lead, the Steelers don't have the depth of receivers to threaten the Colts any more than the average NFL team. If they have to shift focus away from their strength -- the running game -- the Colts can become more aggressive with their pass rush. And at that point, barring mistakes, the Colts can outrace Pittsburgh to the finish line.