Kansas City @ Indianapolis Colts
Saturday January 4, 21:35
Live on Sky Sports 1
The real reference point for the market-makers for this opening game of Wildcard Weekend appears to be the 23-7 pasting administered by the Indianapolis Colts to the Kansas City Chiefs a fortnight ago. Before that game, the Chiefs would've started favourites. Now they're on the receiving end of a field-goal head start.
The question is: do you take that comprehensive defeat at face value? Well, alarmingly for Kansas fans, it arrived at their home patch of Arrowhead while this game is in Indy's backyard of Lucas Oil Stadium - thereby immediately providing an additional advantage for the Colts.
Furthermore, Indianapolis have arrived in the play-offs in the flush of a three-match winning statement which contrasts starkly with the Chiefs losing their last two tussles of the campaign. With both head-to-head and current form looking pretty ominous, then, why do I still fancy Kansas strongly?
Well, once you peel back the veneer of their recent form lines, some mitigating circumstances are revealed. Firstly, the Chiefs knew they couldn't improve their postseason season weeks ago. They were never going to challenge divisional rivals in Denver for the AFC West title but their regular-season record was so impressive as to have already locked up a wildcard berth.
In short, head coach Andy Reid could afford to take his pedal off the metal. And he did just that, especially in Kansas' final game against San Diego where he fielded 99% back-ups. The Chiefs still had to stage a comedy of errors to avoid beating the Chargers on the road, only falling 27-24 in overtime to another proficient play-off side. Reid will therefore have been both emboldened by that showing from his lesser lights and relieved at resting his main starters in what essentially proved a helpful bye week after a gruelling year.
Those playmakers should re-emerge fresh and focused this weekend. Quarterback Alex Smith will certainly have appreciated the time off to get his head straight after an uncharacteristic performance against the Colts where he spilled the pigskin twice, threw an interception and was sacked five times.
Smith, though, normally does a fine job of protecting the football. As, indeed, does the wider Chiefs outfit. They offer a risk-averse offense, which typically minimalizes the mistakes under Smith guidance (although in fairness, he can air it out if necessary), instead relying on a swarming defense and the breakout foot speed of Jamaal Charles for their game-winning gains.
Losing the defensive battle - and turnover count - to Indy was the key and one which their miserly D can quickly regain. They have little to fear from the Colts offense which has struggled to rack up rapid rewards ever since losing its stud receiver Reggie Wayne to season-ending injury in Week Seven.
Indianapolis will once again put the burden on star QB Andrew Luck, a second-year pro under center, who often plays like a seasoned elite pro. Filling Peyton Manning's boots in Indy was always likely to be an invidious task, but the 24-year-old has coped manfully with the expectation.
In fact, Luck is already the franchise's third-best all-time passer (for 300-yard-plus matches). Not bad for a quarterback with rookie gameday experience. But what Luck really needs is for another offensive player to step up and share the load. In his receiving corps, that could be Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has some incredible athletic skills if Luck could only get him the ball more consistently. Sadly, old iron-hands DHB, isn't the most blessed in terms of grabbing gifts.
Backfield rushers don't look too promising for Indy either. They mortgaged their house on Trent Richardson (averaging under a paltry three yards per carry) who has yet to deliver and has even been eclipsed by the mediocre Donald Brown. Without either of these two providing some viable running channels, Luck's options looks limited and Kansas' demoralising defense should soon unravel his strategies.
Back on the other side of the ball, running back Charles (a threat for both rushing and receiving) should soon make hay against one of the worst rush-defenses in the league. Charles leads the NFL in touchdowns (12 on the ground, seven through the air) and while his yards-per-carry figures (five) aren't initially jaw-dropping, they are when you consider he's amassed nearly 1,300 over the year. This guy can move the chains.
So, in conclusion, Kansas should keep it simple with Smith and Charles and rely on their D giving them enough opportunities to get over the line - and at all rates on the half-time, full-time handicaps. The Chiefs even posses one of the most dynamic return-units in the game, headed by Dexter McCluster, while Indy special teams probe the league lows. Game-changers aplenty for the visitors, then. The Colts, however, just have the one.
Back Kansas City Chiefs to beat Indianapolis Colts on Moneyline @ 2.05 or better
Back Kansas City Chiefs (+2.5) to beat Indianapolis Colts on Match Handicap @ 1.82 or better
Back Kansas City Chiefs (+1.5) to beat Indianapolis Colts on First Half Handicap @ 2.0 or better
Back Over 22.5 Kansas City Chiefs Total Points @ 1.91 or better
Back J.Charles to be First Touchdown Scorer @ 7.5 or better