Football Outsiders analyzes the top three NFL matchups each week every Thursday. Here are the top games for Week 12.
Once again this year, the Thanksgiving games all look like fairly one-sided affairs, while the best matchups are saved for Sunday. This week, Numbers Crunching looks at two possible conference championship previews and an unexpectedly important game featuring the NFL's quietest franchise.
Much of our analysis is based on DVOA, which takes every single play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent. DVOA and Football Outsiders' other advanced stats are explained here.
San Diego Chargers (5-5) at Indianapolis Colts (6-4)
You may think that the Chargers have Indy's number, but that's not quite true. The Chargers have won four of the last five games between these teams, and two of those knocked the Colts out of the playoffs. On the other hand, the recent history of this series really includes six games. If you are going to include a win by the pre-Rivers, Schottenheimer-coached 2005 Chargers, you really should also include the Colts' 2004 win as well. That makes it four out of six, and in five of those six games, the margin of victory was less than a touchdown.
Both Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning have put up outstanding stats, given how many injuries have affected their top targets. However, Rivers got Malcom Floyd back a week ago, and this week finally gets Vincent Jackson back. These two receivers are particularly important against the Colts for two reasons. The first is size: Floyd (6-foot-5, 201 pounds) and especially Jackson (6-5, 241) will easily out-physical the Colts' corners. (Kelvin Hayden is 6-0, and Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey are just 5-10.) Second, so much of the Colts' zone coverage is based on stopping receivers from making big gains after the catch. The Colts have allowed an average of 4.5 yards after the catch this year, tied for third in the NFL. The Chargers run a lot of screens and shorter passes that depend on yards after the catch, and they lead the league with 6.6 yards after the catch. But Jackson and Floyd don't run those patterns -- they mostly go deep. Jackson averaged just 2.8 yards after the catch last year (76th among receivers with at least 50 targets) and Floyd had 2.6 (78th). Jackson and Floyd could spend most of the game just living in that flag-route hole in the Colts' Cover 2 defense.
Of course, the Chargers' offense still has to outscore the Colts' offense, which is never an easy feat. However, the biggest weakness of the Chargers' defense -- stopping the run on first down -- happens to match the biggest weakness of the Colts' offense. San Diego's other major weakness this year is stopping passes to tight ends (it ranks 26th) and running backs (21st), so look for Jacob Tamme and Donald Brown to be very involved in the passing game.
Horrible special teams have kept the Chargers at 5-5 despite great offense and defense, but if there was ever a game in which special teams won't be a problem, it is this one. The Colts rank 30th in our special teams ratings and haven't had good special teams in a decade.