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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (8-6) at Oakland (7-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Indianapolis Colts were able to regain control of their playoff destiny with a sorely-needed victory last week, while the Oakland Raiders kept their slim postseason hopes alive by coming through with a big win of their own in their most recent outing.
Both teams seek to build off those important results in a critical Week 16 matchup this Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, a venue that hasn't hosted a game of such magnitude at this stage of the season in quite some time.
Indianapolis entered last weekend's play one game behind resurgent Jacksonville for first place in the AFC South, a division the Colts have usually had an ironclad stranglehold upon in December in recent years. The reigning conference champions were able to restore a sense of order with one of their most complete performances of the season, receiving strong showings on both sides of the ball in a 34-24 triumph that prevented the Jaguars from clinching a playoff berth.
Quarterback Peyton Manning was his customary self in leading the Indianapolis offense, with the four-time league MVP completing a crisp 19-of-29 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. The surprise was provided by the Colts' defense, which shook off its season-long struggles against the run to shut down one of the NFL's most potent ground attacks.
Jacksonville went into the contest having amassed over 200 rushing yards in three straight games, but was held to a scant 67 yards on 22 attempts by a determined Indianapolis squad that had been ranked 29th in the NFL in run defense.
The Colts will get a chance to see whether last week's was a trend or an aberration on Sunday. Oakland boasts the league's second-best rushing offense, averaging an impressive 157.5 yards per game, and piled up 264 yards on the ground in a 39-26 dismantling of downtrodden Denver in Week 15 that enabled the Raiders to remain in contention in the AFC West race.
Oakland, which finished the day with 502 total yards one week after gaining 476 in a tough seven-point loss at Jacksonville the previous Sunday, will still need plenty of help in order to end an eight-year postseason drought. The Raiders trail Kansas City by two games for the division's top spot with only two left to play, and are still one back of second-place San Diego in the standings.
The Raiders can capture the division by defeating the Colts and following up with a win in Kansas City next Sunday, but the Chiefs also have to lose to Tennessee this week and the Chargers have to fall in one of their final two tests as well.
Indianapolis has a more direct path to reach the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year, as it would claim the AFC South title by prevailing in its two remaining games. The Colts conclude the regular season by hosting fading Tennessee.
Manning won't have one of his main weapons on the field when the Colts visit the Coliseum, as valued wide receiver Austin Collie was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after sustaining a third concussion of the season during the Jacksonville win. On the other hand, running back Joseph Addai has practiced fully this week and appears on track to return from a lingering neck problem that's sidelined him for the past eight games.
The Raiders have won seven of 11 all-time regular-season meetings with Indianapolis, but the Colts have won the last two matchups between the teams, backing up a 35-14 home victory in 2004 with a 21-14 decision at the Coliseum in December of 2007. Oakland had defeated Indianapolis four straight times prior to that 2004 loss, with the most recent triumph a 23-18 verdict in Indiana in 2001.
The clubs have also split a pair of postseason matchups, with the Colts winning the 1970 AFC Championship in Baltimore and Oakland returning the favor with a 37-31 overtime ousting in a 1977 AFC Divisional Playoff at Memorial Stadium.
Both Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell and Oakland's Tom Cable will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time in their present positions.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
For just about this entire season, Indianapolis has been a team that's thrown an awful lot and run very little, as the Colts presently lead the NFL in passing offense (298.1 ypg) and are dead last in rushing yards (85.1 ypg). That imbalanced concept changed last week, however, with the club gaining a healthy 155 yards on the ground against the Jaguars to aid a razor-sharp day out of Manning (4257 passing yards, 28 TD, 15 INT). Second-year back Donald Brown (460 rushing yards, 2 TD, 20 receptions) ran for a career-best 129 yards in the win, with a good chunk of that total coming on a back-breaking 43-yard touchdown burst in the third quarter, and the hopeful return of the versatile Addai (406 rushing yards, 18 receptions), a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who's also an excellent pass protector as well as a fine receiver, should help Indianapolis become less reliant on their cornerstone quarterback's right arm. Still, don't expect the Colts to stray too much from their pass-first philosophy, though Collie's absence takes away one option from a still-deep corps of pass-catchers headlined by four-time Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne (99 receptions, 1247 yards, 5 TD). Speedy counterpart Pierre Garcon (57 receptions, 4 TD) had 93 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a win at Tennessee two weeks back -- a game Collie also missed -- while tight end Jacob Tamme (53 receptions, 3 TD) has shown to be a capable fill-in for injured All- Pro Dallas Clark.
Oakland will attempt to combat the Colts' diverse aerial assault with a strong collection of pass rushers that have accounted for 40 sacks this season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. Tackles Tommy Kelly (52 tackles, 7 sacks) and Richard Seymour (48 tackles, 5.5 sacks) have excelled at creating pressure from up the gut, while outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (50 tackles, 6 sacks) and end Matt Shaughnessy (51 tackles, 7 sacks) can bring the heat from the outside. Starting safeties Michael Huff (87 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and Tyvon Branch (91 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) have combined for an astounding seven sacks as well, though it remains to be seen if the Raiders will blitz the quick-thinking Manning with that type of bravado come Sunday. Seymour is questionable to play due to a hamstring strain, however, while shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (17 tackles) is still fighting through an ankle sprain that limited his snaps in the Denver game. Oakland can be run upon, ranking 26th in the league in rush defense (130.9 ypg) and surrendering 234 yards on the ground to the Jaguars two weeks back, but a pair of rookies -- middle linebacker Rolando McClain (71 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) and end Lamarr Houston (30 tackles, 4 sacks) -- have been two bright spots in that area.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Expect Oakland to try to pound away at an undersized Indianapolis defense with its excellent running game, which would serve the dual purpose of keeping Manning on the sidelines for as long as possible. Top back Darren McFadden (1112 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 10 total TD) has put together an exceptional season in which the former first-round draft choice has averaged 5.3 yards per carry and also been a tremendous receiver out in open space, and the Raiders can also grind it out inside behind 245-pound complement Michael Bush (499 rushing yards, 7 TD, 11 receptions). Throwing the ball has been more of an adventure, as quarterback Jason Campbell (2001 passing yards, 11 TD, 8 INT) has had an up-and-down first year with the Silver and Black and injuries have often hampered a group of receivers that wasn't very deep to begin with. Tight end Zach Miller (46 receptions, 4 TD) and wideout Louis Murphy (37 receptions, 2 TD) have been Campbell's most reliable targets, while rookie speedster Jacoby Ford (22 receptions, 2 TD) is averaging nearly 19 yards per catch as the team's best deep threat. The Colts also need to pay attention to fullback Marcel Reece (112 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 4 total TD), who hooked up with Campbell for a 73-yard touchdown last week.
After being abused by opponents utilizing a smash-mouth approach for the majority of the season, the Colts really stepped up and rose to the challenge against Jacksonville, with veteran middle linebacker Gary Brackett (64 tackles) and rookie strongside starter Pat Angerer (78 tackles, 1 sack) spearheading a charge that held Jaguars factor back Maurice-Jones Drew to a pedestrian 46 yards on 15 carries. However, such displays haven't been the norm for Indianapolis, which is surrendering an average of 135.8 rushing yards per game (28th overall) and 4.7 yards per attempt on the year. The Colts are proficient at harassing the quarterback, however, with ends Robert Mathis (50 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (23 tackles, 8 sacks) two of the best in the business, and a secondary headed up by free safety and leading tackler Antoine Bethea (94 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) typically doesn't give up many big plays. The Colts hope to have their best cover corner, Kelvin Hayden (61 tackles, 2 INT), back after missing the last three games with a neck stinger, though replacement Justin Tryon (30 tackles) has done a solid job filling in.
Manning leads the league in passing yards and is near the top in touchdown throws, as if owners would need any additional evidence to justify slotting the star signal-caller in lineups. Wayne and Garcon are starting locks as well and could receive an increase in looks with Collie out again, and Tamme wouldn't be a bad choice at the tight end spot. Proceed with caution in regards to Addai, who may be worked in slowly after a long layoff, and Brown may be the better play out of the Indianapolis backfield this week. McFadden is the absolute Oakland player to have for fantasy purposes, but the gifted back may be the only Raider worth starting other than usually-active kicker Sebastian Janikowski. Those using Campbell in what's normally a championship week in leagues should do so at their own risk, and Miller's more of a fall- back option at tight end. Neither defense is recommended here, but Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is usually a safe selection.
Last week's performance may be an indication that the Colts have broken out of their midseason malaise and are ready to take off just at the right time. Then again, it's reasonable to question whether that win was merely the product of being just a bit better than a flawed Jacksonville team. The blueprint for beating Indianapolis has always been running the football effectively and pressuring Manning to knock the offense out of rhythm, two areas in which the Raiders have been adept at throughout their vastly-improved 2010 campaign. Having averaged better than 32 points over its last three games, Oakland does have the firepower to hang with the defending AFC champs, and Campbell is 4-0 as starter at home this season. The Colts don't lose too many shootouts, but the Raiders' dynamic running game and McFadden's home-run ability may be enough to pull off what most would consider an upset.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 27, Colts 24
12/24 09:00:18 ET