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Broncos vs. Colts Divisional Round Preview: More Than Just the Quarterbacks

Everyone's talking about the Manning vs. Luck matchup, but CJ Anderson could play the biggest role in Sunday's game.

The Colts are going into Denver as 7-point underdogs in a game that features the highest over/under of the Divisional Round weekend. Indianapolis is looking to assert themselves as a contender in the AFC, while Denver is attempting to regain some of their offensive explosiveness they somewhat lacked over the last month of the season.

The popular headline is Peyton Manning versus Andrew Luck, but that isn’t close to the full picture. Yes, both quarterbacks are integral pieces to their teams, but there are way more variables than just two players in this contest.

Denver is the second seed in the AFC, riding a surprisingly dominant rushing attack that features breakout running back CJ Anderson. Over the last five weeks of the regular season, Anderson was second in the league in rushing attempts per game (22.6), tied for third in rushing yards per game (96.2), and led the league in rushing touchdowns during that span (7). Despite only starting the final seven games of the season, Anderson finished sixth among all running backs in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP).

The Colts' main task on defense will seemingly be to shut down the Broncos run-heavy attack, something they've been mediocre at all season long. During the regular season, Indianapolis had the NFL’s 16th best opponent-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, surrendering 113.4 rushing yards per game, which ranked 18th-best in the NFL.

In all likelihood, if Denver sticks to their game script of running it down opposing defenses' throats again this Sunday, the Colts may have issues getting Andrew Luck onto the field. But with these ideas in mind, let’s see what the advanced metrics say.

Change of the Offensive Tide in Denver

As alluded to in the paragraphs above, the Broncos adjusted their offensive makeup in the final weeks of the season, changing from one of the pass-heaviest teams in the first 12 weeks of the season to one of the most run-heavy teams in the last five.

According to our metrics, Denver called run 46.6% of the time in Weeks 13-17. For comparison, the Broncos called a run play just 33.4% of the time in Weeks 1-12. The reason for this change is a hotly contested topic. Peyton Manning is still playing at a very high level -- he finished second among all quarterbacks in Pass NEP this season -- but his statistical production waned as the year went along.

Over this final five-week span of the regular season, Manning attempted just the 16th-most passing attempts (155) in the NFL, which accompanied a paltry 5-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Granted, four of those interceptions came in their Week 16 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. The point stands, however, that Manning isn’t playing at as high of a level as were accustomed to, and over the final five weeks, his Passing NEP total was roughly Joe Flacco-esque.

One player that was only slightly affected by Manning’s spotty play and Denver's run-heavy attack is wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas was still a target monster, seeing the league’s third-most targets from Weeks 13-17 with 57, catching 29 of those passes for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns.

However, Emmanuel Sanders’ production was hurt sorely in the Broncos final five games. In Weeks 1-12, Sanders saw 9.5 targets, had 6.9 receptions, and racked-up 98.5 yards per game. In Weeks 13-17, those numbers were cut to just 7.2 targets, 5.5 receptions, and 65 yards per contest.

The Colts rotate corners frequently, so Thomas and Sanders should both see a dose of Colts defensive backs Vontae Davis and Greg Toler.

A big question mark heading into the game is the state of Broncos tight end Julius Thomas' ankle. He practiced fully this week, but has not seen a snap share of 70 percent or higher since Week 10. Unfortunately, Thomas’ ankle is still likely not near full strength, but it's worth noting Julius went off on the Colts in Week 1 of the regular season, compiling 7 receptions, 104 yards, and 3 touchdowns.

Luck Time?

The Colts' offense has been good quite good all season, ranking ninth in Adjusted Offensive NEP. While Indianapolis finished the regular season sixth in passing offense, they finished 27th running the ball due in part to an injury to Ahmad Bradshaw, an effective-but-nothing-special Dan Herron, and the rotted husk of Trent Richardson.

Due to the Colts’ relative inefficiency and inability to run the football, Andrew Luck and the Colts’ pass-catchers will have to beat the Broncos’ fifth-best pass defense to have a shot at winning. Denver’s cornerback Chris Harris is having the best season of his career, and is one of the league’s best defenders in pass coverage.

Denver’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, put out all of the stops to hold Colts’ number-one receiving threat, T.Y. Hilton, in check in their Week 1 matchup. And it worked. Hilton only caught 5 of his 11 targets for 41 yards, and he struggled consistently against press coverage. This likely will be the case again this coming Sunday, leaving the Colts with a wide receiving core of 35-year-old Reggie Wayne, "dad runner" Hakeem Nicks, and rookie Donte Moncrief to beat Denver’s secondary.

Even though Denver has been good against the pass all year, a matchup to watch for in the game will be the Colts two tight ends, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener against Broncos' linebackers. Denver hasn’t been all that great defending tight ends this season, giving up 5.9 receptions, 58.2 yards, and 0.6 touchdowns per-game to opposing teams tight end options.

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