Finally, after months and months of talking about PSI, CBAs, and more legal terms than I ever want to deal with for entertainment, football is back. Real games, meaningful results, and a sense of normalcy after an offseason storyline indirectly involving the Colts. Let's get to it.
Much like 2014, the Colts have to go on the road to start the season, this year making a trip northeast to Buffalo to take on the trendy Bills. I say trendy as they've become a darling to some in the media, picking them to make the Playoffs for the first time since Frank Wychek found Kevin Dyson on the other side of the field on a kickoff all the way back in 1999. They came up just a game short of making the Playoffs a year ago, and new head coach Rex Ryan knows a thing or two about getting teams to overachieve and making runs in the Playoffs, especially early in a tenure.
The Bills will be starting Tyrod Taylor at Quarterback, his first NFL start in this his fifth NFL season. He's only thrown 35 career passes, and just five of them coming in the past two seasons. He's never thrown a TD pass and has two interceptions in his four years as a backup to Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Taylor has been impressive this preseason, beating out Bills first round pick from a year ago E.J. Manual, who was benched halfway through last season for poor performance (I guess that's what we're calling it), and Matt Cassel, brought in from Minnesota and cut a week ago. It's a good story of a guy who took advantage of the chance he was given, and will be interesting to see how he handles his first career start.
The Colts core has only a few changes, mostly at the Offensive skill positions and on the Defensive Line. We all know the Colts decided not to bring back Reggie Wayne, replacing him with his long-time friend and Colts nemesis Andre Johnson, and the Running Back position was upgraded (how could it not have been from Trent Richardson) with another "U" player, Frank Gore. The moves clearly weren't long-term, but with Andrew Luck on his rookie deal for one or maybe two years, it's a sign they're trying to win right now before Luck makes a bazillion dollars. The Colts have also entirely overhauled the Defensive Line. Cory Redding is in Arizona, Arthur Jones is back on IR, and Josh Chapman was released last week, outplayed by rookie David Parry and never living up to some sizable expectations. Newcomer Kendall Langford is the only one of the six guys who'll play on Sunday up front that has every started a game in the NFL. We'll also (hopefully) get a return from Colts great Robert Mathis, returning from an Achilles injury suffered last year. It'll be awesome to see #98 flying around again, even if he's not at All-Pro level just yet.
The last time the Colts and Bills played was in 2012, a 20-13 Colts win that was certainly not pretty (like a lot of the wins in 2012), but it got the job done. A punt return from T.Y. Hilton ended up being the difference, which I'm guessing won't be happening Sunday after getting paid this offseason. The Colts have won seven of the last eight meetings with the Bills, and that lone loss came in Week 17 of 2009, when they tried for one series in a driving snow storm, got Wayne and Dallas Clark some bonus money, then packed it up and lost 30-7. In games they've tried to win, it's been since Week 17 of 1999 (there's that year again) since the Colts have lost to the Bills, so it's been a while. Overall, including the Baltimore years, the Colts are just 31-35-1 all time against Buffalo.
Enough of the build-up; let's get to the numbers, keys to the game, and who'll start their season 1-0.
2014 Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Bills (Adjusted):
|Orange Zone Eff||61.7%||5||56.9%||20||52.8%||22||46.3%||3|
|Avg Start Pos||30.2||13||26.2||1||31.6||5||28.4||9|
|3 and Outs||3.48||13||4.87||3||4.60||30||4.93||2|
|Penalty Yds / Play||0.800||14||0.828||17||0.983||29||0.786||21|
Keys to the game:
- It's only Week 1, but I predict we'll be seeing the #1 Passing Offense playing against the #1 Passing Defense Sunday. It seems obvious that this'll be where the game is won, but we'll know right out of the gate how good this Colts Offense will be in 2015, as I don't think they'll face a tougher test all season. Last season the Bills were the #1 Defense overall, and led seven individual categories, including the most important four. You hear a lot about Seattle's D, but the Bills were every bit as good.
- I had completely blocked out the horrendous turnover numbers the Colts put up last year, but there that "30th" sits for the 2014 Colts. It's a relatively easy place to make drastic changes from year-to-year, and the Colts absolutely must take better care of the ball. This area is a definite "strength vs. weakness" not in the Colts favor.
- Where was the Bills Defense vulnerable last year? In the Red Zone, ranking just 18th in the NFL, even though they ranked 3rd in Orange Zone Efficiency. It means they were able to end a lot of drives between the 35 and the 20, but if you got inside the 20 you could score points. Usually we think it's only a big deal to score a TD when facing an outstanding Offense, but I think it holds in this case as well. Teams were able to put the ball in the end zone when they got close against the Bills last year. Have to do the same thing for the Colts to win.
- This is also a matchup of the two best Defenses on Third Down from 2014, with the Bills narrowly edging out the Colts by less than half a percent. While the Colts Offense should hold a clear advantage over the Bills, Third/Fourth Downs will be critical for both Offenses.
- I bet most people who watched the 2014 Bills wouldn't have said they were a better passing team than rushing team, but that's what the Winning Stats said. They were basically league-average passing the ball, and ranked in the 20s for both RB Success Rate and Yards per Carry. Ryan has a history of wanting to pound the football, and adding LeSean McCoy, even slightly hobbled, gives the indication that's where their focus will be. We mentioned the very green DL for the Colts already, so I expect a heavy dose of running from the Bills. It'll also keep the Colts Offense off the field, something we'll see employed quite often this season from opposing teams.
The Winning Stats have been big fans of the Bills since the beginning of last season, and this is going to be a huge test for the Colts right out of the gate. The Grigson/Pagano/Luck Colts are just 1-2 in Week 1 games, losing both games on the road, and I definitely think Sunday will be a struggle. I think we'll see a couple mistakes from Taylor, a couple mistakes forced by the Bills Defense, and a low-scoring, defensive battle. If we've seen one thing with the Colts over the last 3 years, they always find some way of coming out on top in close games, and I think they do the same here. A late field goal wins it in a highly competitive game.
Colts 17, Bills 16