It was another strong week for bettors in NFL Week 6, but success should not stagnate the will to improve. The goal is to continue to improve as a handicapper, and we strive to do that with our deep dives into things a quick glance at a box score would not divulge.
This week we focus on two teams with a lot to dissect. Indianapolis is not only improving but getting healthy as well. If that trend continues, a real race could develop in the AFC South. Speaking of trends, a troubling one is developing for the Chargers that threatens to derail a promising season.
Indianapolis Hitting Its Stride
In 2018, the Colts were in a tailspin after a Week 6 loss to the New York Jets dropped them to 1-5. Their defense had allowed 30.0 points per game, and the offense looked stagnant with scoring efforts of 24 or fewer points in four of those six contests. It seemed that it was another lost season, but a 9-1 SU and 6-3-1 ATS run to end the season put the Colts in the postseason, where they fell to Kansas City in the divisional round. Similarly, this season might have seemed lost after their 0-3 SU, 1-2 ATS start. But improved health and quarterback play could have the Colts finding some momentum at the right time.
After handling Houston as an 11.5-point favorite last weekend, Indianapolis is 2-1 SU, 3-0 ATS in its last three games, and the offense is beginning to shape its identity. Carson Wentz has looked much more comfortable over the last three games, completing 69.9 percent of his passes for 9.80 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Over those three games he is the fifth-best passer in the league by PFF standards and the second best when kept clean over that stretch.
His improved play has been buoyed by a rushing attack that has averaged 145.3 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry over those three games. As a result, Wentz has thrived as a play-action passer, ranking third in PFF’s passing grade on play-action attempts and completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 13.5 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and no turnover-worthy plays. Wentz is getting more comfortable in Frank Reich’s offense — and it is at the perfect time, with Indianapolis entering the easiest stretch of its schedule.
The Colts have just the 19th-hardest remaining schedule, with four games against the Texans, Jaguars and Jets on the docket as well as winnable home games against the Titans, Raiders and Patriots. DraftKings has the Colts at + 150 (40 percent implied probability) to make the postseason and + 350 (22.2 percent implied probability) to win the AFC South. Both numbers carry value and are worth investing in now. The team is “optimistic” All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson will return this week and tackle Braden Smith will be back at some point, giving a needed boost to a surprisingly weak leak along the offensive line. The wide receivers room has started to get healthier with the return of T.Y. Hilton last weekend. Health has been a massive factor behind this slow start, and as that begins to improve, so will the team. The indicators are there for the Colts, so bettors should hop on the train now before it leaves the station.
The Chargers’ Defensive Liability
It seems that almost every week a topic of conversation in this column is a poor offensive line or a soft front seven, and we have another to discuss this week in Los Angeles. The Chargers are coming off their worst performance of the season, getting run over 34-6 by the host Ravens. The problem is not the loss but the way it transpired, painting a picture of a real problem for the Chargers’ defense.
Baltimore used its stout running game to demolish the Los Angeles front, racking up 187 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. It is a poor performance against one of the best running games in the NFL, but it is also a trend that has been present all season. The Chargers are now PFF’s second-worst graded run defense in the league, checking in with a 35.2 grade, just ahead of the Chiefs. In more traditional metrics, they have allowed 162.5 rushing yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry, and both marks are 32nd in the league. In the five statistical categories that Football Outsiders tracks in rushing defense, Los Angeles ranks no higher than 26th. Cleveland took advantage of that in their wild game two weeks ago by running for 230 yards on 6.6 per carry. This is clearly a massive weakness for the Chargers and one that could haunt them the rest of the season.
In a very basic way, Brandon Staley’s defensive philosophy invites teams to run the ball with light boxes and high safeties. However, when he was the Rams’ defensive coordinator, he had a dominant presence up front in Aaron Donald, who is just as effective defending the run as rushing the passer. The Chargers lack that presence, and what was supposed to be a symptom of a defensive philosophy is a full-blown problem.
Los Angeles is on a bye week, but its next three games will come against the Patriots, Eagles and Vikings. Two of those teams rank in the top 10 of PFF’s team rushing grades, and all three rely on their running game as a strength. The Chargers have a week to cure what ails them or it could be trouble.