For the first time since 1993, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos will play a game without Peyton Manning starting at quarterback.
The storyline of this matchup used to be all about Peyton Manning: from his sheer domination of the Broncos (he was 8-2 while completing 66% of his passes for 2,490 yards, 24 touchdowns, and six picks against Denver) to his matchups with his former team (against whom he was just 1-3). But Manning is retired, and that allows a different matchup to take center stage.
That matchup is the one featuring Andrew Luck and the Colts offense against Von Miller and the Broncos defense. Denver’s defense simply dominated their opponents a year ago, carrying the team to a Super Bowl championship to send Peyton out a winner. The defense took over last year, not only finishing with the best defense in the regular season but also dominating in the postseason, including against some of the league’s best quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Cam Newton. Last week, the Broncos once again defeated Newton, allowing a 69.5 opposing passer rating and only 20 points on the day - including only three in the second half - as they won 21-20. Since then, they’ll have had ten days to prepare for the Colts’ offensive attack.
That Colts offense was on full display last week against the Detroit Lions, as they put up 450 yards of offense and scored 35 points in a losing effort. Andrew Luck was tremendous, as he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns on 31 of 47 passing without an interception, and he led the Colts on a game-tying drive and then later a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, but the defense was unable to hold the lead. Luck has played well against the Broncos in his career, as he has completed 104 of 170 passes (61.2%) for 1,115 yards (6.6 yards per attempt), nine touchdowns, and four interceptions with 17 rushes for 103 yards and two scores in four career games (the Colts are 3-1 in those games). Last year, Luck was good enough to shake off plenty of hits and lead the Colts to a win over the then-undefeated Broncos and their vaunted defense... but during the game, he suffered a lacerated kidney that wound up ending his 2015 season. So in many ways, that game represented both the high point and the low point of the season for the Colts, as it was their biggest and best win but also saw them lose their franchise quarterback.
For his part, owner Jim Irsay still hasn’t gotten over last year’s victory over Denver. He repeatedly used that game as an example this offseason to highlight what the Colts can do when healthy and playing well - they defeated the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos in what was a down season for Indianapolis. Irsay has used that example multiple times, but this Sunday will provide a chance for the Colts to try to replicate their performance from a year ago (minus the Luck injury, of course).
The primary matchup that could decide this game is obviously the battle between the Broncos defense and the Colts offense. Odds are that whichever unit “wins” the battle on Sunday will wind up winning the game. But with that said, this will provide a big test for the other units, too. The Colts defense was terrible in week one against a potent Lions offense, and there were a comedy of errors: missed tackles, blown assignments, etc. The Broncos offense, meanwhile, is sort of a mixed bag right now and it’s unclear what to expect from them. C.J. Anderson is a very dangerous running back and the Broncos will likely rely heavily on him on Sunday. We saw what Theo Riddick was able to do to Indianapolis last week, and the Broncos would be very wise to use Anderson as much as possible - both in the run game and with underneath passes to exploit the linebackers (which was the weakness of Indy’s defense last week). Trevor Siemian will be making his second career start at quarterback, however, and he did what he was asked to in his debut. But he’s also not Matthew Stafford and he shouldn’t light up the Colts defense to the same degree (and if he does, it’s just another sign of how bad Indy’s defense is). So that matchup should be a bit easier for Indy, but the C.J. Anderson factor, coupled with the defensive struggles and injuries (at least four key defenders will be out Sunday and probably more), leaves little confidence in the unit.
So once again, this game will come down to Andrew Luck. Can the Colts’ quarterback do enough against the league’s best defense to pull out a win on the road? Can the offensive line - which was very impressive a week ago - keep a fierce Broncos pass rush off of Luck enough to let him make plays? If they can, the Colts stand a very good chance, and I do think this game will be close. I don’t see the Trevor Siemian-led Broncos offense being able to blow out the Andrew Luck-led Colts offense even despite the wide, wide range in opposing defenses (which may be as wide of a gap between defenses as you’ll see in any game this year). So I expect this one to be close and I think Luck will play well and do enough to keep the Colts in it until the end, but with the Colts on the road against a very good defense and with their own very bad defense, I’m taking the Broncos in this one.
Predicted Score: Broncos 28, Colts 24