Game week is upon us, and last night the NFL officially kicked off with the Seattle Seahawks laying a beatdown on the Green Bay Packers. The game was just one of two in the opening week of games to pit two playoff teams from a year ago against one another. The other such game? The Indianapolis Colts versus the Denver Broncos.
It's a game between two of the best teams in AFC. It's Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning, take two. It's a primetime matchup on Sunday Night Football. And it's a game that's getting plenty of hype. Let's take a look at the matchup, and then I'll offer my prediction on the game.
Key of the Game for the Colts
Putting Andrew Luck here would be too much of an easy-out for me, because it's beyond obvious that if the Colts are going to win (or even be competitive) they'll need their star quarterback to play well. No, instead of Luck I'm going with the Colts' pass rush as the key to the game. Last year's matchup between these two teams literally changed on a Robert Mathis strip-sack of Peyton Manning. Mathis sacked his former teammate twice and knocked him down 4 times, and that's not counting the other pressures he had. The Colts had Manning under pressure a lot despite blitzing less than their season average, which was huge, because as we all know blitzing Manning often doesn't work out well for opposing defenses. This year, however, Mathis is suspended and will miss this matchup. The Colts will be without the reigning NFL sack champion, their best defensive player, and a guy who accounted for nearly half of the team's sacks last year by himself (which is an insane number). Mathis is out this week, and the Colts didn't do a ton this offseason to improve their pass rush. They'll need to have a team effort, getting it from their defensive line and linebackers (like Jerrell Freeman, D'Qwell Jackson, Jonathan Newsome, Cam Johnson, and especially Bjoern Werner). Werner is a huge figure in this game. Last year's first round draft pick, Werner had a disappointing rookie season in which he managed just 2.5 sacks in an injury-plagued campaign. He looked tremendous in training camp and preseason, however, and it's absolutely crucial that he get consistent pass rush on Manning Sunday night. If he can't the Colts might have to resort to their blitzing schemes, and that's a very risky game against Peyton. To me, I think that Bjoern Werner is really the key to the game for the Colts.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Broncos Defense
I'm going to say that the matchup to watch when the Colts are on offense is their tight ends against the Broncos linebackers. With Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, the Colts have two talented tight ends who will factor into the offense in a big way. Allen especially is a huge addition for the Colts and he will have a role in most of what the Colts do, whether it be as a pass catcher, blocker as a tight end, or in the backfield. Fleener will likely be solely a receiving tight end now that Allen is back. While there's a chance that the Colts will use Allen more in the backfield protecting Luck if the offensive line struggles, the two tight ends the Colts have present an interesting matchup against a Broncos linebacking core that will be missing Danny Trevathan. Keep an eye on these two tight ends, as they could end up seeing a lot of snaps and targets and could prove pretty influential to the game (in Allen's case as more than just a pass-catcher).
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Broncos Offense
Since I already used the pass rush one, I won't use that one here (although it would certainly apply). Instead, I'll go with the unit that will be most directly affected by a lack of pass rush, and that's the secondary. Last year against the Broncos, the Colts were really the first team to throw off the timing between Peyton Manning and his wide receivers by doing a similar thing that the Seattle Seahawks did in the Super Bowl, though obviously that Seahawks defense is just so much better overall. The Colts corners play a physical game against receivers, and that's the best bet of throwing off this Broncos offense. With how predicated it is on timing, by throwing off the receivers a bit you in turn throw off the whole offense a bit. That's what the Colts need to do - they need to weather the storm and just play their game. In fact, I liken what they need to do with what they did in the third preseason game against Drew Brees and the Saints. In that game, the Colts got pretty much zero pass rush. And in that game, Drew Brees made some throws that were pretty much unstoppable - he's gonna make some plays. The Colts secondary didn't let those plays get them down but rather did a very good job overall of breaking up passes and defending the pass (now, D'Qwell Jackson on Jimmy Graham or Marques Colston? That's another story). That's exactly what they need to do this Sunday. Hopefully the pass rush will be better, but either way, this secondary has to do the same thing. They have to realize that Peyton Manning will make some plays - he's just too good not to. The Colts can't let that get them down but rather need to just keep playing their game - playing the receivers physically and making plays when they're there. If the secondary can do that, it'll go a long way toward helping the Colts chances of winning.
Why the Colts Will Win
Because they've shown us before that they can beat the NFL's best, and this team is at least as good (and I think better) than the team last year that did so. The Colts went to San Francisco and dominated the 49ers by running the football and playing good defense. They beat the Seattle Seahawks by coming from behind and airing it out. They beat the Denver Broncos by putting it all together (while still acknowledging that Peyton Manning would make some plays). The Colts have beaten the NFL's best before and I think we've seen very clearly that on any given week they can beat any given team. Even the Seahawks. Even the Broncos. And with Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Colts always have a chance. Even if they fall behind, Luck has done it many times before. His passing attack figures to be very good. If the secondary plays like they're capable of doing and if the Colts can get some pass rush (even a bit!), there's every reason to believe the Colts could win this game. They've got Andrew Luck, after all, and the one thing everyone in the NFL has learned by now is this: never rule him out.
Why the Colts Won't Win
Have you seen that offensive line? Have you seen that pass rush? Both of those areas will be big concerns on Sunday night. The offensive line starters actually could hold their own, but they are starting a rookie at left guard and we don't know who's starting at center yet - though it's looking likely that it will be A.Q. Shipley, who the Colts just signed this week. Behind that line, the Colts likely won't be able to run the ball very well with Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck will probably be under pressure often - something he's been able to play with in the past but which certainly isn't good. And then that pass rush could prove to be the fatal flaw for this team on Sunday night, as they'll be without Robert Mathis. We're all hoping that Bjoern Werner shows up and the Colts are confident that he will, but counting on him to be the primary pass rusher against Peyton Manning when he likely won't (and shouldn't) be helped out by exotic blitzes is a risky game. And it's one that could very well come back to hurt the Colts.
As I wrote earlier this week, in no way should we rule the Colts out against the Broncos, and I'm definitely not doing so. I think Andrew Luck and this offense have enough firepower to make this game a high-scoring, competitive affair, but without Robert Mathis and against PFM in Denver, I think the Broncos will score even more against an overmatched Colts defense. The Colts will be competitive, but I think the Broncos win.