The last time the Indianapolis Colts played the Denver Broncos, the Colts notched their biggest win of the Chuck Pagano era. On a cold January day on the road in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Colts impressively defeated the Broncos 24-13 to advance to the AFC title game, winning their second game in three meetings against Peyton Manning's Broncos.
Since then, however, a lot has changed. The Broncos fired head coach John Fox and replaced him with Gary Kubiak, who brought a new staff led by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Under Phillips, the defense has become dominant, while the team has no longer been carried by their offense but rather their defense as they have jumped out to a 7-0 start this year.
The Colts too have undergone a lot of change since that meeting. They opted not to re-sign one of their all-time greats in Reggie Wayne, and they then added several notable pieces such as Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, and Trent Cole to gear up for a Super Bowl run. A popular preseason Super Bowl pick, however, the Colts' season has become a disaster as they are 3-5, and they just fired offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton this past week.
All-time, these two teams are split at 12 wins each if counting playoffs, where the Colts are 3-0. The series has been incredibly one-sided recently, however, as the Colts have won ten of the last 13 matchups (and 7 of the last 8), going 2-1 under Chuck Pagano.
Of course, when the Colts play the Broncos now, the big storyline is the Colts' greatest player returning to face his former team, as Peyton Manning will make what will almost certainly be his final trip to play a game in Indianapolis. It's a significant game too, as not only could Manning even up the series against his former franchise 2-2, he also could set the career records for both wins and passing yards if his team wins this Sunday and he throws for at least 284 yards. There's a lot of poetry to him potentially breaking the records in the stadium that wouldn't be there if not for Manning, so there are certainly story lines to be watching. The Colts can't focus on any of that, however, as a loss would drop them out of first place in the AFC South and to a dismal 3-6 record entering the bye week. They need a win however they can get it, but it won't be easy against the undefeated Broncos and their number one-ranked defense.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Broncos Defense
The Broncos' defense has been simply phenomenal this year. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said this week that it reminds him of the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens defenses, calling it a "scary movie." This is a team that just held the league's best quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) to 77 yards passing for the entire game last week. Several quarterbacks can get 77 yards on a single drive, much less for a whole game, and the Broncos have been playing tremendous defense all season long. They're first in points per game allowed, yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed, and sacks, are third in third down percentage allowed and opposing passer rating, and are fourth in rushing yards per game. They also are tied for second in the league with 17 turnovers forced. The Broncos do a lot of things well, but it's that last number that I want to focus on. Turnovers have plagued the Colts this year, as they have given the ball away the second-most times of any team (19 times). 13 of those 19 turnovers have been committed by Andrew Luck, and it's something the Colts absolutely can't afford to have on Sunday if they hope to win.
The turnovers have been a huge factor in the offense, and not in a good way. Firstly, they have contributed to the slow starts that the Colts now are really trying to fix. Last week against the Panthers, the Colts turned the football over on each of their first two possessions, essentially spotting the Panthers a 10-0 lead early. Secondly, the turnovers put the defense in a bad spot. Last week, 19 of the Panthers' 29 points came off of turnovers. And then thirdly, the turnovers have been the biggest example of the Colts' offensive struggles, as they can't seem to protect the football or get any rhythm going.
On Sunday, Andrew Luck will face his toughest test of the season. He'll face a Broncos pass rush that is the league's best, and he'll face a secondary that ranks number one as well. In other words, the Broncos can get pressure on the quarterback and still have great coverage on the wide receivers. It could be easy, then, for Luck to try to force a play (especially while under pressure) to a covered receiver, which could result in a pick. The Colts absolutely can't afford that, and so the biggest matchup to watch here is Andrew Luck vs. well, the whole defense. He needs to play smart football and win the turnover battle. If he (and the offense) can do that, then the Colts could very well make it a close game and have the chance to pull it out. But if the turnover issues show up once again, as they have so often this season, the Colts won't be able to catch up against a better team. Andrew Luck needs to protect the football and be smart this week, and that's something that I'm sure new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is working with him on this week.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Broncos Offense
Peyton Manning is still a quarterback you can win with, and he'll still make some plays. But the Broncos' offense is clearly at their best when they are able to run the ball and when they don't have to rely on Manning to make all of the plays. This seems obvious, but think back to the Manning we've seen in past years (particularly some of his later years with the Colts) and you'll realize that, in the past, he hasn't always needed a run game to succeed (or even a defense). This year, though, Manning hasn't been great, but the offense can still be dangerous. When the run game is going it helps Manning and the offense as a whole looks much, much better. So the key to the game on the defensive side of the football? Make Peyton Manning beat you.
Now, I'll caution that by saying this: I do think Manning is still capable of beating this defense. I think that, with the Colts struggling to get any sort of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Manning could have time to throw and make plays. But the best chance of stopping this Broncos offense will be to stop the run and force Manning to throw, where you could get a turnover or two. The Broncos' run game has really improved in the last few weeks as well, as they have rushed for at least 144 yards in three of their last four games (after not rushing for more than 69 in any of their first three). Ronnie Hillman has led the charge, rushing for 383 yards and four scores this year while averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and nearly half of that production has come in the last two games. He is running well, and then C.J. Anderson provides a nice complementary back to that as he has rushed for 281 yards and a score this year, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. The numbers may not show it, but the Colts' run defense has actually been better this year than in years past, as they have completely retooled their defensive line with three new starters in free agent Kendall Langford and rookies Henry Anderson and David Parry. The Colts will need a good showing this Sunday against the Broncos' run game, at which point they need to try to make the Broncos' offense as one-dimensional as possible.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts are at home and desperately need a victory. They are 3-5 and in danger of falling out of first place in the AFC South, having not beaten a non-divisional opponent all year. With the bye week looming, the Colts need to get a win heading into the break, if for nothing more than a confidence boost (I doubt that Chuck Pagano will be fired mid-season now that they have already made a change at offensive coordinator, but an embarrassing loss to the Broncos could have a say in that). That offensive coordinator change could pay off if Rob Chudzinski provides a spark for this offense, going up-tempo more and utilizing talent better, particularly the tight ends. And if Chud can get Andrew Luck going and can get him to be smarter with the football, then the Colts absolutely stand a good chance in this one.
Why the Colts Won't Win
Let's be honest: a 3-5 team hosting a 7-0 team and the best defense in the NFL on a short week with a struggling quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and likely without their number one wide receiver. That's not promising. The Broncos are the better team and they're absolutely playing better right now. For the Colts to win this game, they're going to need to suddenly improve on the issues that have plagued them all year. While that's possible, I'm not sure how likely it actually is.
I do think that the change in coordinators will give the Colts' offense somewhat of a spark, as I'd expect to see them utilize the up-tempo offense more often and utilize some talent that has been left behind this year (I'm looking at you, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener). So I wouldn't at all be surprised if the offense looks better (it'd be hard to be worse from the first three quarters last week), and the defense has been solid enough this year when not put in bad situations by the offense. With an improved offense, a solid defense, and great special teams play, I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts kept this one closer than the records might indicate, but until the Colts actually show the improvement many are hoping for, I can't pick them to win against a better team and the number one defense in the league.