In 2015 the Chargers lost their first road game and won their first home game, then had a chance to go 2-1 with another road test. They played so poorly in a 31-14 loss to the Vikings that Philip Rivers was removed in the second half to preserve his long-term health. The next week they needed a do-over field goal to beat the awful Browns at home and then lost six in a row.
This year they find themselves in a similar situation that feels very, very different. In 2015 San Diego had to come from behind to beat a Lions team that started 1-7 then stumbled their way through a loss to the Bengals. In 2016 the Bolts whipped the Chiefs for three quarters before disintegrating then beat the snot out of the Jaguars.
Sunday’s game against the Colts in Indianapolis will give a good indicator if this year’s Chargers are truly that much better. Indy is 0-2 and will be missing a lot of pieces on both offense and defense but they suffered their own late breakdown in their opener against Detroit and were hanging with the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in Denver until Von Miller forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown to put it out of reach.
Plus, we must always be wary of a desperate team at home. If starting 0-2 makes it hard to reach the post-season starting 0-3 is ringing the death knell. Antonio Gates will not play, which is the reason the Chargers signed Asante Cleveland and waived running back Andre Williams. With that in mind let’s take a look at the three players to watch at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Sean McGrath, TE
You thought I was going to say Hunter Henry didn’t you? Henry is the obvious choice because he now becomes the feature tight end and should get plenty of targets against a Colts defense that will be thin on the back end and untalented at linebacker. But Henry has been tremendous in blocking in the first two games, helping Philip Rivers stay cleaner than he was a year ago and opening up the running game to top 150 yards in each of the first two games. McGrath will have to be that guy now and help the Chargers offense keep up its pace as the highest-scoring team in the AFC.
Corey Liuget, DE
Colts QB Andrew Luck missed practice time during the week with a bad throwing shoulder. He was sacked five times in Denver and has been on the ground seven times already this year. Putting pressure on any quarterback is important but when you have one who’s already dinged playing in an offense that hasn’t been able to establish an effective running game in a couple of years it becomes even more vital to make sure Luck feels uncomfortable in the pocket. Problem there, of course, is he’s one of the most physical running QBs in the NFL. Liuget makes plays from sideline to sideline. If he can get to Luck and bring him down, or at least catch him and prevent a long run, the Chargers defense can control the game.
Mike Windt, LS
Special teams are always important. They can be the fastest way to get a splash play that turns the tide of a game. Windt has become one of the top three long snappers in the NFL. On both field goals and punts he gives Drew Kaser a perfect feed nearly every time and there’s something to be said for that. So I basically just wanted to give Windt some recognition because let’s face it, long snappers are like baseball umpires … you really only hear their names when something goes haywire. Plus he’s been rocking the man-bun and you have to respect that.
Every indicator is this game will be a shootout. The Colts, even with their offensive injuries, can put points on the board while the Chargers should be able to take advantage of the under-manned Indy defense. But sometimes when it looks like the scoreboard is going to be lit up it ends up being an ugly defensive slugfest. So I’m going to go against what my head tells me and go with my gut.
The Chargers should still have enough to hold off the Colts in a one-possession affair.
Final score: Chargers 20, Colts 13