The Green Bay Packers (2-2) embark on their first three-game road trip since 1998 when Green Bay takes on the Colts (1-2) Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Packers will also go to Houston and St. Louis before returning home in Week 8.
These two teams haven’t met in Indianapolis since a wild 45-31 win for the Colts in 2004. The Packers beat the Colts in the last head-to-head matchup, a 34-14 Green Bay win at Lambeau Field in 2008.
Here are five things you could watch Sunday, with a prediction to close:
Continuing the rebound
The last time the Packers were away from Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times and the offense scored just 12 points. The Colts defense isn’t level with the Seattle Seahawks, but Indianapolis does have two edge rushers who could make things difficult for the Packers offensive tackles.
Robert Mathis has four sacks in 2012 and Dwight Freeney had his way with Bears left tackle J’Marcus Webb in the opener before leaving with an ankle injury. Both are adjusting well to new roles as rush linebackers in the 3-4 defense. Freeney, who has missed three games, practiced fully this week and should start.
The Packers offensive line has a six-quarter stretch of keeping Rodgers upright, including 67 straight drop backs.
Not your average rookie
Forget the “rookie” label when talking about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This isn’t your average first-year player behind center. Widely considered the top college quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, Luck has been everything advertised and more through three games.
His supporting cast is as limited as they come in the NFL, but Luck has managed to lead the Colts to 357 yards and 20.3 points a game. His football IQ is off the charts, pressure doesn’t rattle him and there’s surprising athleticism in and out of the pocket.
The Packers have historically fared well against rookie quarterbacks under Dom Capers—including in Week 3 with Russell Wilson—but Luck is far from a pushover. This will be another good test for a young defense that was shredded in Week 4 against Drew Brees.
Banged up secondary
The Colts have serious injury issues in the secondary. Vontae Davis, dealt for from Miami before the season and now starting at one cornerback spot, hasn’t practiced this week with an ankle injury. He’s doubtful for Sunday. Joining him on the injury report is nickel back Justin King, who also hasn’t practiced with an injured groin.
If neither can play, third-year cornerback Cassius Vaughn (six snaps in 2012, via Pro Football Focus) would likely start opposite Jerraud Powers. At nickel or dime back, former Packers practice squader Josh Gordy would see significant snaps. The Packers passing game should find a number of personnel matchups that favor them on the perimeter Sunday.
Keep feeding the bellcow
The Colts are one of 10 NFL teams allowing over 130 yards or more a game on the ground this season. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer was limited (foot) Wednesday and then missed Thursday’s practice, so he may again miss Sunday. He hasn’t played in 2012 after leading the Colts in tackles last season.
The Packers finally have a respectable running game with Cedric Benson, whose 84 yards rushing against the Saints was the most for a Green Bay running back since Ryan Grant ran for 92 against the Chicago Bears in Week 3 of last season. Benson’s 55 carries over the last three games is the most for a back during a three-game stretch in the regular season since Grant in 2009.
Even with James Starks getting healthy, Benson should receive most, if not all, of the carries Sunday. 18 or more carries for Benson is a reachable goal.
Win with pressure
In Week 4, the Packers struggled to get any kind of pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who focused on short drops and quick reads to eliminate Clay Matthews and the rest of Green Bay’s pass rushers. Capers needs more in terms of pressure Sunday.
Right tackle Winston Justice has been a pleasant surprise for Indianapolis, so Nick Perry and Erik Walden may again be limited. Matthews has a favorable matchup against second-year left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Unlike Week 4 against New Orleans, this isn’t an offensive line that should take the Packers pass-rush out of the picture.
The Packers offense should have no trouble scoring near 30 points Sunday. While Mathis and Freeney represent difficult blocks, Indianapolis doesn’t have near the talent in the secondary to make Rodgers hold the ball as long as he did in Seattle. Benson should also provide another workman’s like performance on the ground against a shaky run defense. If Rodgers is protected and Benson keeps the offense balanced, Luck won’t be able to match Rodgers point-for-point. An emotional Colts’ sideline should put together an honorable performance in the name of their missing coach, but it won’t be enough. Packers get to 3-2, with an important matchup in Houston on the horizon.
Packers 34, Colts 20 (Season record: 1-3)