WHEN THE CHARGERS RUN
LaDainian Tomlinson must shoulder the offensive burden. Norv Turner plans to pound the ball to keep his offense balanced and Peyton Manning on the sidelines. The Chargers will have to run effectively early in the game so they don’t fall behind and become one-dimensional. That has been a challenge for Tomlinson, whose per-carry average is much better in the fourth quarter (5.6) than in the first (4.1).
Tomlinson typically struggles against the Indianapolis Colts defense. Indy’s team speed negates Tomlinson’s shiftiness and renders his stretch plays useless. In three career meetings with the Colts, LT has carried 66 times for 233 yards (3.5-yard. avg), never rushing for more than 81 yards in a game.
During the Chargers’ seven-game winning streak, Tomlinson has tallied 721 yards (103 ypg) and seven touchdowns. As a team, the Chargers averaged 152.3 yards rushing per game over the last four contests. They look to continues that roll against the No. 15 rushing defense (106.9 ypg). However, as the Colts proved last year, they can crank up the defensive intensity in the postseason.
Tomlinson will get some help this week with the expected return of Lorenzo Neal, who missed the last four games after fracturing his fibula. It remains to be seen how effective Neal can be, but his bulldozing style perfectly complements a rushing attack that will focus between the tackles.
Norv Turner is counting on his offensive line to win at the point of attack. There is a great contrast of styles in the trenches, as the Chargers trot out five bruisers (avg weight: 311.6 pounds) to take on Indy’s quick, gap-penetrating front four (avg weight: 271.5 pounds).
WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS
It’s as if the football gods wanted to test Philip Rivers’ ability to protect the football in the postseason. His first two opponents, the Tennessee Titans and Colts, tied for second in the league with 22 interceptions—only the Chargers had more.
This season has proven how important ball security is to the Chargers offense. During San Diego’s first 10 games, Rivers threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and the Chargers went 5-5. During the last seven games, he threw 11 touchdowns and four interceptions, and the Chargers went 7-0.
Rivers will likely be without his favorite target on Sunday, as Antonio Gates is expected to miss the game with a dislocated toe. That will put more pressure on starting receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson to carry over their success from last week, when they combined for 11 catches, 235 yards and a touchdown.
Brandon Manumaleuna will start in Gates’ place. He has four touchdown catches in the last two seasons but is far more adept at blocking than pass catching.
To that end, the Chargers will count on a trio of rookies to step up and contribute. Craig Davis will play more as the Chargers lean on their three-receiver sets. Legedu Naanee will take Gates’ spot in the third-down packages. And Scott Chandler will be active for only the second time as he looks to do something he never did in the regular season: catch a pass.
The offensive line must give Rivers time to survey his new targets. The line has pass-protected well as of late, allowing only four sacks in the last four games. They square off against a Colts defense that ranked No. 26 in sacks with 28.
The top concern is DE Robert Mathis, who averaged nearly ten sacks per season over the last four years. He missed the last three games with a knee injury but is expected to start against the Chargers. He will lock horns with Marcus McNeill, who is coming off a superb showing against Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Titans.
WHEN THE COLTS RUN
Joseph Addai took over as the lead back when Dominic Rhodes left as a free agent and the offense didn’t skip a beat. Despite missing one game due to injury and playing only in the first quarters of two others, Addai still managed to top the 1,000-yard barrier for the second straight year. He also chipped in 41 receptions and scored 15 touchdowns (12 rushing, three receiving), which is why he’ll be joining Tomlinson in the AFC backfield at the Pro Bowl game.
The Chargers top defensive priority is to stop the run and make the Colts one-dimensional. If Indy moves the ball on the ground and sets itself up with third-and-shorts, the Chargers will never get off the field. San Diego did a good job of this in Week 10, when Addai was limited to 56 yards on 22 carries (2.5-yard avg).
Dating back to the Chargers’ Week 10 meeting with Indy, the Bolts have allowed five rushing touchdowns (in nine games) and no team has rushed for more than 131 yards. In those nine games, the Chargers are only giving up 92.3 yards per game on the ground. The Bolts held the Colts to 75 yards and no scores on the ground when they met on Nov. 11. In San Diego’s the last three games against the Colts, Indy is averaging 67.7 yards on the ground and has only scored one rushing touchdown.
Look for defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely to utilize his full rotation in order to keep players fresh late in the game. That should allow the line to keep blockers off Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper, both of whom are playing at an extremely high level. They combined for 206 tackles, three sacks and five interceptions this season.
The challenge of tying up Indy’s blockers becomes all the more daunting with the return of RT Ryan Diem. He missed the last six games with a knee injury but is expected to start against San Diego. It will be up to Luis Castillo to prevent Diem from reaching the second level.
WHEN THE COLTS PASS
Manning played the worst game of his career the last time he faced the Chargers, throwing a career-high six interceptions in a 23-21 loss. That won’t happen again on Sunday, not since Manning has his full assortment of weapons back in the lineup. Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark, both of whom missed the earlier meeting, will be in the starting lineup for the Divisional Round showdown.
Manning is such a dangerous quarterback because he makes few mistakes and attacks every part of the field. Other than the Week 10 game against the Chargers, he didn’t throw multiple interceptions in any game this season. The Colts ranked third in the league with 53 plays of 20-plus yards.
Getting Harrison back will make the offense that much more dangerous. He missed the last 10 games with a knee injury but is expected to start on Sunday. In his last three games against the Chargers, he averaged nine catches and 147 yards per game. Harrison is matched up against the physical Quentin Jammer, so Harrison will discover how fit his knee is in the early going.
Harrison is joined by Reggie Wayne, who led the league with 1,510 yards and tallied his first 100-catch season (104). Wayne will be covered by Antonio Cromartie, whose three interceptions in the last meeting catapulted his Pro Bowl season.
Rounding out the receiving corps is rookie first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez, who chipped in 37 catches, 576 yards and three scores in 13 games. Of course, the real No. 3 receiver is Clark, who was the only tight end in the NFL to hit double-digit touchdowns (11). He also set career-highs this season in receptions (58) and yards (616). He will be covered by an assortment of defenders on Sunday, including Drayton Florence, Clinton Hart and Eric Weddle.
The Chargers hope to counter this vaunted passing attack by not giving Manning time to throw. Shawne Merriman will key that rush, as he hopes to repeat his first-ever game against the Colts. That came in 2005, when Merriman tallied two sacks and three tackles for a loss en route to his first AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Coming from the opposite side is Shaun Phillips, who had one of the six picks in the meeting earlier this season. Phillips has 20 sacks over the last two seasons and will test Diem’s still-recovering knee with a strong rush off the edge.
The Colts ranked seventh in sacks allowed (23) while the Chargers defense ranked in the top-five in sacks (42). The Chargers have to win this battle, as Manning will pick them apart if allowed to stand in the pocket and deliver through clear throwing lanes.
JUST FOR KICKS
Prior to the start of the Week 10 game, Norv Turner said his team had a distinct advantage on special teams. He was right. Darren Sproles returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns, both in the first quarter, as the Chargers sprinted to a 23-0 first-half lead.
The Colts allowed four kick returns for touchdowns this season, most in the league, so Tony Dungy plans to move some starters onto his coverage units to stop the bleeding. That should improve talent but decrease cohesion, a move that could backfire.
Nate Kaeding has been the most accurate kicker in the league since he was drafted in 2004, but only because postseason stats don’t count. He missed another playoff attempt last weekend against the Titans and is 0 for 2 in field goals with the season on the line. He upped his practice regimen this week as he works his way back from a lower left leg injury, so that could help him regain his form.
Mike Scifres continues to prove he is one of the top legs in the game. This season, he landed 36 punts inside the 20-yard line (second in the NFL) and posted a net average of 39.6 (third in the NFL). His 46.1-yard gross average was the second-highest in team history.
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is inarguably the most clutch kicker in the game, with two Super Bowl-winning kicks to his name. He was 0 for 2 against the Chargers in the last meeting, including a 29-yard attempt in the final two minutes, but that kind of anomaly is unlikely to happen again.
Hunter Smith ranked as the second-worst punter in the NFL in terms of net average (34.2), so if Sproles can’t produce on punt returns then Davis will get an opportunity.
Kick returner T.J. Rushing averages 13.1 yards per punt return (including a 90-yard touchdown) and 23 yards per kickoff return, placing him in the top half of the league in both categories.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.