This Sunday the Indianapolis Colts open up their 2012 home schedule with a game against the Minnesota Vikings (1-0). The Colts (0-1) will have a lot of pressure on them for this game. Why? Because there is second guessing going on already.
Consider for a moment: why does everyone think that the replacement referees are awful? I mean, they are, but how do we know? Because we have seen better - and know that we could have had better too. The reason why the replacement officials are being criticised so harshly is because we have something to compare them to - that is, the regular officials.
Or take the example of a classroom where suddenly a replacement teacher takes over for a teacher that was much better. It's not that the replacement teacher is terrible per say, but that they are being compared to the previous teacher.
Thus is the reason for the pressure that is on Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck. He's not terrible (in fact he's quite good). But he is being compared to his predecessor, just like the replacement teacher or the replacement referees.
Even worse for Luck, however, is that Colts fans know that his predecessor, Peyton Manning, was still an option for the Colts, much like the regular officials are still and option for the NFL. Not only is Andrew Luck trying to replace the irreplaceable Manning, but he is trying to convince Colts fans (and maybe, to a degree, the Colts themselves) that he was the right choice. Because, now, Peyton Manning is back. Some fans won't buy the excuse that the Colts thought he was injured, or that he wasn't worth that much money (even though, at the time those were legitimate concerns). They will see only Manning, wearing his familiar number 18 on that oh so unfamiliar jersey, lighting up the National Football League. They will see Manning make a push for the Lombardi Trophy, while the Colts are trying to get a new era started. None of this is Andrew Luck's fault, but now he has deal with the pressure of it.
Because Colts fans have something to compare Luck to, just like with a replacement official or a replacement teacher. Luck, the rookie who inherited a 2-14 team, will inevitably be compared to Manning, the 15-year old veteran who inherited a playoff team. Seem unfair? Yeah, it is. But that is how the NFL goes - results are expected immediately.
The pressure is on Andrew Luck. It's on Jim Irsay. It's on the Colts as a whole - which makes for a very big game for them this Sunday.
My three keys to a Colts win over the Vikings this weekend are after the jump.
1) I'll give you one guess... yup, Andrew Luck
No surprise here - the biggest key to the game is the same that it was last week against the Bears - Andrew Luck. I know, using Luck here is an easy way out. But I truly believe that if Luck plays well, the Colts will be in a position to win almost every game. And I truly believe that if Luck struggles, the Colts won't have much success at all. All season long (and maybe for the next decade as well) Luck will be the biggest key for the Colts. With the old era Colts, all that needed to be written in the keys to the game section were the words "Peyton Manning". Maybe soon, all that will need to be written will be just the words "Andrew Luck". And everyone will know that the Colts stand a chance.
2) I'm cheating again... the Offensive Line
Ok, I promise that I'm not just copying and pasting from last week. Honestly, the offensive line is an even bigger key this week than it was last week. Last week we saw the line play absolutely awful (granted it was against a very good defense, however). Luck stood no chance behind the line. The Colts simply must protect their quarterback better. They were not as bad at run blocking, but when the franchise player is getting crushed every play, that will be greatly overshadowed. The Colts made some moves this week to try to shore up their line, most notably signing versatile lineman Trai Essex. Essex played in three super bowls with the Pittsburgh Steers (where he played with current Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians) and can play all five offensive line positions (which he did last year for Pittsburgh). Seth Olsen will likely start at left guard, but if he struggles (and he in all likelihood will), don't be surprised to see Essex enter the game (remember, Joe Reitz - the normal starter - will likely be out another week due to an injury). The Colts must protect Andrew Luck if they want to win. It's as simple as that.
3) Get Into the Backfield
Last week the Colts got off to a great start defensively. On the Bears' first two possessions they had Jay Cutler completely rattled and even forced a pick-6 (Jerrell Freeman). Then, rush linebacker Dwight Freeney went out with an injury, and the pass rush that was so great in the first two drives fell apart. Freeney likely won't play Sunday (if he does he will be a game time decision), which means that the Colts will need to have somebody step up. It wasn't that Freeney was great Sunday, but he made an impact beyond the stat sheet. Just watching the game you could see how much the pass rush decreased once Freeney went out. This week the Colts will have to get into the backfield - whether to get to Christian Ponder or to stop Adrian Peterson. Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison will need to step up and fill Freeney's place if he can't go. Robert Mathis needs to provide the pass rush that he did last week (which notched him two sacks). The bottom line here is that the Colts need to get into the backfield in order to have success against the Vikings.
My prediction: Colts win 24-20
I've said all along that the Colts will enter their bye week 2-1, and I still believe it. I think that they will have much more success against the Vikings than they did against the Bears. I'll take the Colts in this one, even with the added pressure. And if that happens, Jim Irsay will breathe a sigh of relief.