What to watch for: Colts must avoid 0-3 start

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Quarterback Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts yells instruction during the football game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium October 14, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts meeting with the San Diego Chargers Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

Must win?: Absolutely. Chuck Pagano preaches the one-game-at-a-time sermon, and we understand that. We’re still in September. After Sunday, 13 games remain. But let’s not kid ourselves. If the Colts are to make anything out of this season – challenge for the AFC South title, return to the playoffs, whatever – it must begin against the Chargers.

“We just have to get this one,’’ running back Frank Gore said. “We just have to do whatever it takes to try to get a win this week.’’

Again, the alternative isn’t an attractive option. The last team to open a season 0-3 and reach the postseason was the 1998 Buffalo Bills. Only four other teams in NFL history found their way to the playoffs following an 0-3 start.

Yes, it’s still September. Yes, the NFL is a marathon not a sprint.

But it’s win-or-else Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Ready, set . . . : A couple of early-season trends are cause for concern as the Colts face their latest moment of truth. First, the Philip Rivers-led Chargers have been quicker out of the starting blocks than Usain Bolt. They’ve outscored Kansas City and Jacksonville 42-3 in the first half, and 59-10 over the first three quarters. Only a fourth-quarter meltdown and overtime loss at Arrowhead Stadium has kept them from a 2-0 start.

The Colts? Not so much. They’ve been outscored 34-16 in first half against the Lions and Broncos. Remember the 21-3 second-quarter hole they dug in the opener? This has got to stop.

“That’s a team that has had great success early in games,’’ defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. “We have to match their intensity early in the game.’’

While Pagano stresses focusing on the task at hand, it’s human nature for players to consider the bigger picture. They realize the consequences of an 0-3 start. Should the Colts falter early, the pressure mounts.

At least no Billy Volek: That persistent ache in the Colts’ side is San Diego. The Chargers have won six of the last seven meetings, and twice bounced the Colts from the playoffs. That includes a 28-24 win in the divisional round of the 2007 playoffs – the final game in the RCA Dome – when Billy Volek stepped in for an injured Rivers and led the game-winning, fourth-quarter drive. Yes, Billy Volek, who was without injured LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates.

“We’ve won a handful of games against the Colts, but shoot, not this team. Every team is different,’’ said Rivers, who’s 5-1 with a 92.8 passer rating against Indy. “From year to year it changes. Different coaches, different players, so it’s different.’’

Ol’ man Rivers: Speaking of Philip Rivers, he’s 34 and in his 13th season, but showing no signs of slowing down. He’s third in the NFL with a 120.3 passer rating. He’s tied for fourth with a 70 percent completion rate. He has five touchdowns and has yet to suffer an interception.

“The quarterback makes it all go,’’ Monachino said. “His football IQ is off the charts and we’ve got to do a great job of being precise in our disguise in everything that we do. We don’t want to give him any pre-snap tells if we can avoid it.’’

Rivers is capable to taking over a game with his right arm. He ranks No. 14 in NFL history with 41,910 yards and has passed for at least 4,000 yards in a season seven times, the fourth-most in league history behind some guys named Peyton Manning (14), Drew Brees (10) and Tom Brady (8).

We won’t be surprised if Rivers tests the Colts’ ailing cornerbacks by targeting Travis Benjamin (13 receptions, 147 yards, 2 TDs) and Tyrell Williams (5, 132, 1). But he might not have to. Rivers might just spend the day handing off to Melvin Gordon. The 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft has gotten off to a solid start in year 2. His 159 yards rank No. 7 in the league, and he’s coming off his first career 100-yard game, a 102-yard effort last week in the rout of Jacksonville.

Luck shouldering the load: The team is being coy with Luck’s health – you know, the sore right shoulder that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice – but it bears watching. We’re only in week 3 and No. 12 has not been a full participant in five of nine practices.

Luck insisted he isn’t concerned and the soreness was a result of being bounced around by the Broncos. Pagano insisted the media “is trying to read too much into this.’’

We respectfully disagree. And we’ll be watching closely to see if that soreness impacts Luck’s effectiveness.

Healthy, or not: Injuries have ravaged the NFL landscape. Just ask the Colts and Chargers. San Diego has lost stud wideout Keenan Allen, wide receiver Stevie Johnson and do-everything running back Danny Woodhead to knee injuries. It has 14 players on the injured reserve list.

The Colts, meanwhile, appear to be regaining their health. There’s a good chance reinforcements are on the way for Monachino. Cornerback Vontae Davis (ankle) and end Henry Anderson (knee) could make their first appearance of the season. Safeties Clayton Geathers (foot) and T.J. Green (knee) might be available.

That would mean 13 of the top 15 defenders would be in uniform. The exceptions: cornerbacks Patrick Robinson (concussion) and Darius Butler (hamstring).

“We all know this is a game about Jimmys and Joes, and not Xs and Os,’’ Monachino said. “The more of those guys that we get back, the better we can expect to play.’’

And the winner is: Colts 27, Chargers 24. San Diego has been the better team thus far, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Often, the most desperate team finds a way.

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