HOW THEY MATCH UP
Chargers (12-4 in 2018) vs. Indianapolis (10-6)
When Chargers have the ball
Philip Rivers will open his 14th season as the starting quarterback, but who’s absent in the backfield could be the bigger story, especially if the Chargers struggle to run. Running back Melvin Gordon remains away from the team in a contract dispute. Over the previous three seasons, he gained 60% of the Chargers’ yards rushing. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson will replace him as coach Anthony Lynn attempts to emphasize a tandem approach. Ekeler has been a reliable complement to Gordon the last two years, and the Chargers really liked what they saw from Jackson late last season when injuries forced him into the lineup. “If one guy goes in the game and gets hot, you let him ride,” Lynn said. “We’re definitely going to play both guys, but I can’t tell you who is going to get how many touches right now.” This game will mark the healthy return of tight end Hunter Henry, who missed all but 14 snaps in the final playoff game a year ago because of a knee injury. If the Chargers’ retooled offensive line gives Rivers time — Lynn called Colts linebacker Darius Leonard “a game-wrecker” — he and Hunter could enjoy quite a reunion.
When Colts have the ball
Speaking of who’s not in the backfield, quarterback Andrew Luck shocked the NFL last month when he abruptly retired, sending the Chargers briefly into scramble mode to find footage of Jacoby Brissett. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley admitted that with a late change at such a significant position “there are some unknowns.” This will be Brissett’s 18th start, 15 coming in 2017, a particularly brutal season for Indianapolis. Those Colts finished 4-12, and Brissett was sacked 10 times in one game and eight in another. This would be a good spot to mention that Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa recently said he’s in the best shape of his life. The Chargers, however, have been quick to mention that Indianapolis’ offensive line is vastly improved. Bosa also likened Brissett’s ability to throw with defenders pawing at him to that of Ben Roethlisberger. If Brissett goes deep, he likely will be targeting T.Y. Hilton, who has the Chargers’ attention. Cornerback Casey Hayward last week was quoting Hilton’s career stats. Unlike the end of last season, the Chargers will have a bunch of healthy linebackers.
When they kick
The Colts’ Adam Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time leader in field goals and points. He’s also 46, making him one of the most permanent things to hail from South Dakota after Mt. Rushmore. The Chargers also appeared to be in a good place with their kicker until Michael Badgley (groin) showed up on the injury list Friday with a foreboding designation (questionable). Unless Badgley makes a sudden recovery, punter Ty Long, in his NFL debut, also will kick. He was successful doing both the last two seasons in the CFL, but Long missed two of three extra-point tries in the preseason. The Chargers also have a first-year long snapper in Cole Mazza.
Jeff Miller’s prediction
Both teams finished the 2018 season on a roll and won a playoff game. Momentum probably doesn’t carry over from eight months ago but, perhaps late in a close game, belief can be recaptured. The Chargers have some significant absences — Gordon, left tackle Russell Okung, safety Derwin James — but still have their veteran quarterback.
CHARGERS 20, INDIANAPOLIS 17