Hidden Match-up Advantages
Peyton Manning had a phenomenal season. His DPAR (defense-adjusted performance above replacement), which measures his overall contributions, was 75% higher than the next highest quarterback in football. His DVOA (defense-adjusted value above average), which measures his efficiency, was 50% higher than the next best quarterback in the league. He completed 65% of his passes for 4,305 yards and 31 touchdowns, and he only turned the ball over 10 times all year.
And Manning was not alone in his excellence. Reggie Wayne was the most productive, and third most efficient wide receiver in the NFL. He caught 63% of the passes thrown his way for 1,314 yards and nine touchdowns. Marvin Harrison was the next most productive, and fifth most efficient wide out. He caught 64% of the passes directed at him for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Among running backs, Joseph Addai was the fifth most productive, and fourth most efficient, threat out of the backfield in football. He caught 80% of the passes targeted for him for 325 yards and a touchdown. Not to be left out, the Colts' trio of tight ends did their fair share as well. Ben Utecht, Dallas Clark, and Bryan Fletcher were 16th, 17th and 18th respectively among tight ends in overall productivity. Fletcher ranked third at the position in efficiency. Combined, the three caught 63% of the balls thrown their way for 946 yards and six touchdowns. Everywhere you look there are weapons. And the line gave the passing attack time to operate, ranking second in the league in lowest adjusted sack rate allowed.
But in the playoffs the Colts' passing attack has faltered just the slightest bit. Manning has thrown two touchdowns and six picks. He's been sacked five times. And, Clark suddenly has replaced Wayne and Harrison as Manning's most reliable receiver, and that is a good thing for opponents. There's just enough sign of weakness to believe that the right defense can win the aerial match-up with the Colts (See Ravens, Baltimore).
And, the Bears are the right defense. The Bears had the second pass defense in the league, behind only Baltimore, who dominated Manning in the Ravens' play-off match-up with the Colts. The Bears led the league in shutting down opponents' tight ends and were third against opposing running backs. It's not hard to see why. The Bears have unique speed at linebacker. Also, the Bears were second in the league at stopping teams' second wide receivers and sixth against third, fourth and fifth receivers. Again, it's not hard to see why. Ricky Manning, Jr. is excellent for a nickle back, and whichever starter -- Peanut Tillman or Nathan Vasher -- doesn't draw the opponent's number one, usually has a match-up advantage. The team's only weakness is defending truly elite number one wide outs. The Bears rank only 21st in the league in stopping opponents' number one wide receivers.
The Bears' pass defense is outstanding because it takes away an opponent's options. They may not have a true shut down corner for an opponent's top guy, and the scheme doesn't provide a ton of protection is Vasher or Tillman are over matched. But the team's depth and speed reduces opposing QBs to looking in only one direction. The Colts thrive on spreading the field and spreading the ball -- Clark's emergence in the playoffs is a sign that this has been especially true this post season. That plays right into the Bears' hands as a pass defense.
Make no mistake about it: the Colts' passing attack is outstanding, the best in the league. But the Bears' pass defense is also outstanding. Despite the national media's coronation of Manning and the Colts' aerial assault, this is a match-up the Bears can win. More importantly, this is a match up the Bears must win. The Bears' rushing attack can control the clock and limit the Colts' chances, but it won't mean a thing if the Colts can strike fast and at will when they do have the ball.