After seven long months, the NFL is back. And the Colts don't have to wait nearly as long in 2014 to meet with an old friend as they did a season ago, as they'll travel to Denver in Week 1 to take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It's certainly a much more entertaining start to the season for the Colts, who hosted the Raiders last year in Week 1.
One of the major storylines heading into Week 1 (other than the Manning vs. Colts thing) is the star-power that is suspended the first quarter of 2014. The Colts have known Robert Mathis would be suspended for a few months now, so they've been able to gameplan around his absence. The Broncos were blindsided (at least publicly) this week by the suspension of WR Wes Welker, for what appears to be "popping Mollys" at the Kentucky Derby in May. These are two key players to their respective teams, and it'll be on Bjoern Werner for the Colts and IU rookie WR Cody Latimer in Denver to step up and fill the void of their superstar teammates.
There is a big name returning for the first time since these two teams met last year, and that's Reggie Wayne. He only played a series or two in the Preseason, but everything we've heard says he's back 100% from his ACL injury he suffered on a 3rd down play in the second half last year. Even if he's used as a decoy (I don't think he will be), having #87 back on the field really makes the Colts a better team. You never know how things would have turned out without an injury, but that was a huge blow to the Colts when he went out last year. Here's to a healthy 2014 for Wayne.
Both of these teams are coming off terrible Playoff performances, although the Broncos performance got a lot more publicity. The Colts were thrashed by the Patriots 43-22 in the Divisional Round, while the Broncos were out of the Super Bowl before the first quarter was over, losing 43-8 to the Seahawks. There's no reason to believe either of these teams will have the "hangover" effect we see after huge losses, mostly because of the time off since then.
The only motivating factor from 2013 I see playing a part Sunday night is the 39-33 Colts win over the Broncos in Indianapolis last year. You can say that Manning wasn't prepared mentally like he is most weeks, the Colts had circled that game and really put an emphasis on it, or even that they prepared well for Tom Brady, but we all know Peyton Manning; and Peyton Manning is scary good when he's out to prove something. The Colts Defense could do no wrong last year against the Broncos (don't let the points throw you. It was a top 25 Defensive game of 2013 in the entire NFL), and Manning had an entire offseason to prepare. He had a ho-hum Week 1 last year too, remember?
The Colts are 9-11 all time against the Broncos (8-6 while in Indy), and have won five straight in the series. In fact, the last time the Broncos beat the Colts where the Colts tried to win was all the way back in 2003. I was at that Sunday night game, which started with a Gary Brackett Pick-6, and ended miserably for the Colts, who did basically nothing else all night. The Colts have dominated the Broncos over the last decade since that game though. We'll see if that continues Sunday night.
How do these teams match-up statistically? Let's dive in and take a look:
2013 Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Broncos
|Orange Zone Eff||58.1%||14||56.0%||19||74.9%||2||61.2%||27|
|Avg Start Pos||30.0||17||28.5||12||29.3||19||28.9||10|
|3 and Outs||4.01||24||3.81||14||3.14||6||3.33||22|
|Penalty Yds / Play||0.570||3||0.721||28||1.073||28||0.827||12|
Keys to the Game:
- Let's start with the Colts Defense against the Broncos Offense, where the biggest key (like in many games) will be Turnovers. The Broncos were the 3rd best Offense in the NFL last year, but very mediocre when it came to Turnovers. They turned it over three times last year, including a rare late-game interception for Manning. Broncos RBs had trouble holding onto the football last year, so any chance the Colts get to keep that trend going I expect them to take. No turnovers for the Broncos means a long night for the Colts.
What else did the Colts Defense do really well last year against the Broncos? Get them off the field on 3rd down, especially early in drives. The Broncos had 8 Three and Outs last year against the Colts, where they only had 13 in their first six games combined. The Colts never let Manning get into a rhythm on drives, and it definitely showed.
- I expect the Broncos to take several deep shots on Sunday night, as they have a huge advantage in Yards per Play. New Bronco Emmanuel Sanders could be the beneficiary, as could Julius Thomas, who I think will have a big day as a huge match-up problem for the Colts back-half. No big plays is a great sign for the Colts.
- The Colts Offense should not wait until they are down two scores before they start airing the ball out, as the Broncos were pretty bad against the pass last year, ranking 28th in the league. They went out and got Aqib Talib, lost an aging Champ Bailey, and bolstered their pass rush by getting a healthy Von Miller and signing DeMarcus Ware. I can't imagine they'll be 28th again this season with all those names, but the Colts have some new weapons of their own in Hakeem Nicks and Dwayne Allen. Air it out, Pep my man.
- Another crucial area for the Colts is in the Orange/Red Zone, where Broncos ranked towards the bottom of the NFL (second worst in Red Zone), and the Colts were pretty good at scoring points. If we see Adam Vinatieri trot out there with the Colts close to the end zone, it's game over for the Colts. You don't beat Peyton Manning with Field Goals, and especially when his Defense is very susceptible to letting you score touchdowns.
- Winning Time of Possession against Peyton Manning is an overrated thought, plus the Broncos Defense was good at getting opponents off the field last year quickly.
- The Broncos were good against the run last year, so naturally the Colts will want to establish the run early. Makes sense. Let's hope my intuition is wrong here and they listen to what I said earlier.
This game is so hard to predict because I keep flip-flopping in my head: I don't think the Broncos will be as good, on the whole, as they were last year when the Colts beat them at home, but I can't see how the Colts will be able to get any pressure on Peyton Manning without Mathis on one side. But the Colts played their best (until the game in New England) against the best teams in the NFL. Factor in the Manning revenge angle, opening on Sunday night at home, etc., and I think this is a very tall task for the Colts. It's not impossible, mind you, but I just can't see them going into Denver and winning.
Broncos 27, Colts 24
As something new this year I'll be including my Thursday night pick in my preview article, just so I don't forget it.
Thursday Night pick: Seahawks 26, Packers 16