Colts at Cardinals: What to watch for Saturday night

Indianapolis Colts
Frank Reich

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich, center, greets players after a play against the Houston Texans during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Justin Rex )

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Saturday night meeting with the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale’s State Farm Stadium.

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4.

History lesson: The Colts are playing for the first time on Christmas Day, but it’s nothing new to the Cardinals. This is their 3rd appearance – the previous two were against Dallas – and the first since 2010. The Cardinals outlasted the Cowboys 27-26 in ’10 on Jay Feely’s 48-yard field goal in the closing seconds while Dallas rolled 37-13 in 1995.

And just so you have all the meaningless info, the NFL’s first Christmas Day games came during the 1971 postseason: Dallas vs. Minnesota and Miami vs. Kansas City. The Dolphins won 27-24 in double overtime in what remains the longest game in NFL history (82 minutes, 40 seconds).

The first regular-season game on Christmas: Minnesota vs. Cincinnati in 1989.

Carry on.

AFC South update: The Colts’ pursuit of the AFC South title took a major hit Thursday night when Tennessee rallied for a 20-17 win over San Francisco Thursday night. That lowered the Titans’ magic number to 1. A Titans’ win or a Colts’ loss clinches the division for Tennessee.

Even if Indy closes the season with wins over Arizona, Las Vegas and Jacksonville, the Titans wrap up the AFC South with a win at home against Miami Jan. 2 OR at Houston Jan. 9.

Playoff update: While the division is a fading dream, a playoff spot remains very much within reach. It’s even likely. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Colts enter the game with an 89% chance of earning one of the three wild-card spots. They’re the No. 5 seed. The odds skyrocket to 98% with a win over the Cardinals and dip to 82% with a loss.

It’s worth noting Indy’s odds are at 94% if they lose to Arizona but rebound with a win over the Las Vegas Raiders Jan. 2.

Of course, there are a slew of other critical AFC matchups that will impact everything.

Mix and match o-line: We’re about to find out the veracity of the offensive line depth. The Colts will be without three starters. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly will miss a third straight game and a second while dealing with family issues. Right guard Mark Glowinski was placed on the COVID-19 list Thursday and All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson joined him Friday.

“If guys go down, it’s gotta be next man up and we’ve got to roll,’’ Frank Reich said. “There’s no excuses.’’

Danny Pinter makes his third consecutive start at center and he’s played well in the previous two. Chris Reed replaces Glowinski at right guard and Matt Pryor steps in for Nelson at left guard.

It represents the 10th different starting combination in 15 games. Reed has started three games at left guard and two on the right side while Pryor has started three games at right tackle.

“There’s a lot of confidence,’’ Reich insisted. “Chris (Ballard) and I were just talking about this . . . about really making a point to get depth, I mean real depth, at the offensive line. And I really think that’s what we have.’’

Offensive focus: Reich said Thursday he wouldn’t alter the game plan when Glowinski was placed on the COVID-19 list. He wasn’t available for comment after Nelson joined him.

But it’s fair to wonder whether losing three o-line starters will impact efficiency and productivity.

Jonathan Taylor and the running game should remain the focal point. Taylor is on an absolute white-hot streak. He’s averaging 144.8 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt over the last six games, with 11 TDs. The No. 2-ranked running game has followed his lead and piled up at least 200 yards in four of those games.

Even though the Cardinals undoubtedly will zero in on Taylor, they’ve been vulnerable to the run. They’re tied-17th in yards per game allowed (112.8) and 27th in yards per attempt (4.6). Arizona has yielded at least 136 rushing yards six times and allowed a back to rush for at least 88 yards on seven occasions.

We’re betting Reich gives Taylor another heavy load. We’re also betting Nyheim Hines gets more touches. He didn’t have a carry in the win over New England and just one reception – an 8-yard TD flip from Carson Wentz. Hines is too valuable to get such a light workload.

More from Wentz: We understand the passing game isn’t going to tack up strong numbers when the running game is as vibrant as it’s been. But we also understand Reich has to get more out of that passing game. Last week – 5-of-12, 57 yards – needs to be an aberration.

Over his last five games, Wentz is averaging 161.4 yards per game and 6.1 per attempt. He’s finished with fewer than 159 yards three times.

We’ve mentioned the apparent weakness of Arizona’s run defense, but there’s nothing wrong with its work against the pass. The Cardinals rank 5th in yards per game (210.0) and 6th in yards per pass play (6.7). They also are among the league leaders with 37 sacks – Markus Golden has a team-best 11 while Chandler Jones has 9.5 in 12 games, including 5 in the opener at Tennessee – and the secondary features safety Budda Baker (five interceptions) and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (four).

Contain Murray: Kyler Murray is simply a defense killer. He’s passed for 3,039 yards and 20 touchdowns, and his 8.4 yards per attempt rank 2nd in the league. The Cardinals have 54 completions of at least 20 yards, which is 4th in the NFL and 19 more than Indy.

But what separates Murray from so many of his peers is his speed and elusiveness. If a defense takes away his options in the passing game, he’ll tuck it and run. He’s Arizona’s third-leading rusher with 270 yards and five TDs on 70 attempts.

“He’ll escape anywhere,’’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. y

“We have to do a really good job . . . rushing four as one. Getting constant pressure up the middle, compressing the pocket and also with the d-ends, level rushing and making sure he doesn’t escape the pocket. Guys just have to have relentless effort.’’

Murray has struggled of late. After inserting his name into the MVP discussion with 17 TDs and just five interceptions in his first seven games, he’s had just three TDs and five interceptions in his last four.

And let’s not forget, Murray has a powerful back in James Conner (700 yards, 14 rushing TDs) and a solid tight end in former Eagle Zach Ertz (34 catches, 395 yards and three TDs in eight games). Christian Kirk (812 yards, five TDs), ex-Purdue standout Rondale Moore (54, 435, one) and A.J. Green (46, 718, three) have taken up the slack for injured DeAndre Hopkins.

And the winner is: Cardinals 27, Colts 24. Honestly, we had this one going the other way. All week we were looking at a Colts’ victory. Dial up our Colts Blue Zone Podcast if you don’t believe me. Then, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, defensive end Kemoko Turay and Glowinski hit the COVID-19 list. Next, Nelson joins them. As much as we’ve been impressed with how the Colts have won seven of nine, this seems to be a bridge too far.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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