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Indianapolis Colts vs. Detroit Lions Preview

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NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, NFL football is back.

The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers got the 2016 season kicked off with an exciting game last night, and the Indianapolis Colts will get their season underway on Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts will host the Detroit Lions for a 4:25 p.m. game, with both teams looking to get their season on the right track. The Colts had a disappointing season in 2015 as they stumbled to an 8-8 record as they were without Andrew Luck for nine games, and it all added up to the team missing the playoffs. Stunningly, however, owner Jim Irsay brought back Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, but the team has undergone some changes. There’s an overhauled coaching staff and there was a bigger emphasis on developing youth this offseason in Indianapolis.

As for Detroit, they finished last year 7-9 and also missed the playoffs, though they ended the year on a high note. After an 0-5 start and a 1-7 record at their bye week, the Lions then finished the season 6-2 and made a push for the playoffs thanks to their very strong second half. The Lions also had questions about their coaching situation but they also decided to retain their head coach, keeping former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell around for a third season (Caldwell will face his former team for the first time as a head coach on Sunday).

This Sunday will be the 42nd all-time meeting between the two franchises, with the Colts holding a 21-18-2 edge. The Colts have won the last four meetings (their last loss to the Lions was in 1997, when Peyton Manning was still in college), and in 2012 pulled out one of the most thrilling wins of the Andrew Luck era as Luck hit Donnie Avery for the walk-off touchdown to win 35-33 in Detroit.

We could see a high-scoring affair once again, as the Colts are very injured defensively. Andrew Luck and the offense are going to need to carry the Colts if they hope to emerge with a win. Owner Jim Irsay admitted as much this week, saying, “this is a team that’s got to score 24 points-plus at home Sunday. The offense has to carry us while the injured young defense holds on and tries to find some playmakers and some health.”

That defensive health will certainly be an issue, as the Colts will for sure be without three defensive starters (Vontae Davis, Henry Anderson, and Clayton Geathers) and may very well be without another (Sio Moore). Furthermore, Darius Butler, a key depth cornerback, also won’t play. The Colts already had concerns defensively, but now in addition to their major questions at pass rush they’ll also be starting a rookie safety (T.J. Green), maybe a rookie linebacker (Antonio Morrison), and a cornerback they just signed a few weeks ago (Antonio Cromartie). In fact, three of the four healthy corners haven’t even appeared in a game for Indianapolis (regular season or preseason), weren’t in training camp, and two of them were signed just this week. That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

That shifts the pressure to the offense to produce, and they’ll likely need to score quite a few points to keep up with Matthew Stafford and company, who could potentially have a field day against a beat up Colts defense. But the Colts will have Andrew Luck, playing in his first real game since suffering a lacerated kidney in week nine last year. Though the offense was pretty vanilla in preseason, the Colts figure to have an underrated receiving group in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett, one that can create matchup problems (such as putting Hilton in the slot in a three-wide formation, which we saw frequently in camp). If the Colts operate from a base three-wide offense, they should be able to put up some points and make the game competitive. Then, it’ll just come down to who can pull it out in the fourth quarter.

One of the keys for the Colts offense will be protecting Luck, which was their biggest emphasis this offseason. They may get starting left guard Jack Mewhort back, as he seems to have healed amazingly fast from a knee injury suffered a few weeks ago, and new center Ryan Kelly will be making his official NFL debut. The front five will receive a nice test in week one, as the Lions boast a pretty good defensive front. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is still a force against the run, while defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor combining for 21.5 sacks and five forced fumbles a year ago. Ansah in particular is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to pass rush, as he recorded 14.5 sacks a year ago - the third-highest total in the league. The Colts’ offensive line will have their hands full on Sunday as they face a great test (that will be an especially important test with a matchup with the Denver Broncos’ defense looming in week two).

In short, this game will likely be very similar to a lot of the Colts’ games in the Andrew Luck era: it will be all about Luck, and if Indy hopes to win they’ll need their quarterback to carry them. With Luck back and with high expectations for the offense, I’ll take the Colts in a high-scoring close game at home, but it may just depend on how well the defense can do being adequate-enough to mask some of the injury concerns.

Predicted Score: Colts 34, Lions 31