While the Chiefs were finally able to record their first win of 2011 last week, the injury-riddled Colts return to Lucas Oil Stadium for Sunday's clash between these two early disappointments still in search of an elusive initial victory.
Two-time defending AFC South champion Indianapolis is off to its first 0-4 start since the still-unavailable Peyton Manning's 1998 rookie campaign, and hasn't began a season with five straight losses since the pre-Manning era of 1997. The sputtering Colts have come closer to breaking into the win column more recently, however, taking a lead deep into the second half in each of their last two outings.
Indianapolis held a seven-point advantage late in the third quarter of Monday's matchup at Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers rallied for two unanswered touchdowns to pull out a 24-17 decision. One week earlier, the Colts were up by three points on reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh entering the fourth quarter before being dealt a tough 23-20 defeat on a last-second field goal.
"I think we're close," said Colts quarterback Curtis Painter. "We're just scratching for a win here and I think everyone's playing hard. I don't think we're going to quit. I think we're going to continue to battle and hopefully get over that hump this next week."
Indianapolis appears to have a beatable opponent in a stumbling Kansas City squad that's lost seven of its last nine games on the road dating back to last season and fields one of the league's least threatening offenses. Minus All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles due to a year-ending ACL tear back in Week 2, the Chiefs have averaged a mere 12.3 points per game and are last in the NFL in first downs made (49).
Kansas City did come through with its best output of the season in last Sunday's matchup with visiting Minnesota, however, with struggling quarterback Matt Cassel throwing for 260 yards and kicker Ryan Succop connecting on five field goals to lead the way in a 22-17 triumph over the reeling Vikings.
The Chiefs hope to build off that encouraging performance when they face a depleted Indianapolis defense that surrendered 466 total yards to the Buccaneers on Monday and could be without three of its top four defensive tackles for this week's tilt.
Of course, no injury has affected the Colts more than the two neck surgeries Manning has undergone over the past five months. The absence of the four-time league MVP has not only impacted the perennial contenders in the standings, but a once-formidable offense has generated the third-fewest yards and a subpar 15.8 points per game over the first four weeks.
The Colts did record a season-best 318 total yards in the Tampa Bay loss, however, with Painter hooking up with wide receiver Pierre Garcon on a pair of long touchdown passes in his first career regular-season start. The third-year signal-caller is expected to be under center for this contest as well, with aging veteran Kerry Collins still recovering from a Week 3 concussion and ineffective in the team's first three games.
The Colts took a 10-7 advantage in their overall regular-season series with Kansas City by virtue of a 19-9 win at Lucas Oil Stadium during Week 5 of the 2010 campaign, and have prevailed in seven of their last eight encounters with the Chiefs. Including the playoffs, Kansas City is 0-5 all-time in Indianapolis and hasn't beaten the Colts on the road since Dec. 21, 1980, a 38-28 decision at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The Chiefs' last win of any kind in this set took place in 2004, when the team outlasted Indianapolis in a 45-35 shootout.
Indianapolis has also won all three postseason games between these teams, claiming a 2006 AFC First-Round Playoff at the RCA Dome and besting the Chiefs by a 38-31 score at Arrowhead Stadium in the 2003 Divisional Round. The Colts also came through with a 10-7 home victory over Kansas City in the 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
Last year's meeting also marked the first head-to-head matchup between Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell and Kansas City's Todd Haley, as well as both head coach's only previous game against his counterpart's respective team to date.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City averaged an NFL-best 164.2 rushing yards per game during last year's surprise march to an AFC West title, but that was with the dynamic Charles around for a full season. The 2011 Chiefs haven't been nearly as potent in that area, with neither the declining Thomas Jones (111 rushing yards) nor diminutive Dexter McCluster (164 rushing yards, 17 receptions) providing much of a sustained spark. That's forced Haley to have to rely more on the arm of Cassel (688 passing yards, 4 TD, 5 INT), who's shaken off two poor performances to begin the season with a pair of good efforts in his last two. The 2010 Pro Bowl alternate has also been able to hit on more big plays as of late, with top target Dwayne Bowe (16 receptions, 292 yards, 2 TD) eclipsing the 100-yard mark in two of the team's last three tests and offseason addition Steve Breaston (10 receptions) posting season bests of four catches and 91 receiving yards in the Minnesota win. Kansas City still needs to improve within the red zone, however, as the offense had all sorts of trouble crossing the goal line against the Vikings and has scored touchdowns on just 3-of-10 possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line to date.
Indianapolis enters this contest ranked a lowly 28th in both scoring defense (27.0 ppg) and against the run (133.0 ypg), and the team was gashed for 192 yards on the ground by the persistent Buccaneers on Monday. Injuries up front have been a contributing factor to that lack of success, as starting defensive tackle Fili Moala (ankle) has missed two straight games and rotational pieces Eric Foster (12 tackles) and Drake Nevis (16 tackles) were forced to exit this past week's loss, with Foster suffering a season-ending dislocated ankle. Steady middle linebacker Gary Brackett is also done for the year, though young fill-in Pat Angerer (50 tackles) has performed ably in his place and weakside starter Kavell Conner (43 tackles) has been active in run support as well, with the fellow second-year pro notching 18 tackles against Tampa Bay. There have been few big plays produced by the secondary, however, therefore it's critical that the excellent edge-rushing duo of ends Robert Mathis (8 tackles, 3 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (6 tackles, 2 sacks) can make their presence felt on Sunday. The all-star tandem has accumulated four sacks and forced a pair of fumbles over the last two weeks.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Colts' offense still didn't come close to reaching Manning-esque standards in Monday's setback, the insertion of Painter (341 passing yards, 2 TD) in place of Collins (481 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) did bring about some positive results. The 26-year-old did not commit a turnover against the Bucs and found the speedy Garcon (14 receptions, 295 yards, 2 TD) for touchdown strikes of 87 and 59 yards, while finishing the night with 281 passing yards. Painter did complete only 13 of his 30 attempts, however, and was sacked four times behind a shaky offensive line that will be without both promising left tackle Anthony Castonzo (ankle) and backup Ben Ijalana (knee, out for season) on Sunday. Veteran Ryan Diem, sidelined the past two weeks with an ankle sprain, is uncertain to play as well. With that in mind, Indianapolis may lean more heavily on the running-back pairing of Joseph Addai (230 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) and rookie Delone Carter (103 rushing yards), while Painter's passes to Garcon and mainstays Reggie Wayne (18 receptions, 255 yards, 1 TD) and Dallas Clark (13 receptions, 1 TD) may be of the shorter variety.
Painter will get to take his shots at a Kansas City stop unit that ranks just 25th in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered 10 touchdowns through the air thus far, tied for the most in the league. The Chiefs are also banged up in the secondary, with valued strong safety Eric Berry tearing his ACL in the opener and top cornerback Brandon Flowers (19 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) dealing with a sore ankle, though he was able to play effectively last week. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali (25 tackles) came through with a big day against the Vikings, with the 2010 Pro Bowl honoree amassing a pair of sacks and being credited with five quarterback pressures. He's accounted for four of the team's unimpressive season total of five sacks, and should draw plenty of attention from the Indianapolis blockers come Sunday. Inside linebackers Derrick Johnson (23 tackles, 4 PD) and Jovan Belcher (26 tackles) anchor a run defense that did permit 151 yards on the ground to Minnesota last week, but held the dangerous Adrian Peterson to a reasonable 80 yards on 23 attempts. The Chiefs still rank just 26th overall against the run (130.0 ypg) for the year, however.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. Neither of these teams possess much of a running game to speak of, therefore whomever wins the head-to-head battle between Cassel and Painter will most likely be celebrating a victory with his teammates on Sunday. Though Painter was an improvement over the slumping Collins in his starting debut, he'll need to complete more than 43 percent of his passes to give the Colts their best shot, while Cassel needs to follow up last week's strong showing with another for the Chiefs to make it back-to-back wins.
The pass rushers. There are game-changing defenders on both sides of this matchup in Indianapolis' stellar combo of Mathis and Freeney and Kansas City's one-man wrecking crew of Hali. In what should be a close contest, how successful each team is in neutralizing these impact rushers could go a long way towards determining the outcome.
Red-zone efficiency. Both the Colts and Chiefs have been among the league's worst in producing touchdowns in the red zone, while Kansas City's defense has been one of the poorest in preventing the opposition from crossing the goal line in those situations. Whichever team can come up with seven points instead of three on its drives stands the best chance of winning.
These participants may not be playoff-caliber any more, though that still shouldn't prevent this game from offering at least some intrigue. Both teams come in with remarkably similar problems, and neither seems to hold a clear advantage over the other. The Colts are at home, however, and the Chiefs don't usually play their best football away from Arrowhead Stadium, and Indianapolis still has a few playmakers on offense that should present a challenge to the Kansas City defense. If Painter can make a few plays and keep his mistakes to a minimum, as was the case in his first starting opportunity, the Colts appear to have just enough healthy talent left to finally get back on the winning track.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 20, Chiefs 16