The Colts fell short of reaching the playoffs after a late-season implosion in 2019. After what many believe is another strong draft, an active free agency period, and a full offseason for players to get healthy, the Colts of 2020 are going to look different.
Chris Ballard’s aggressive offseason suggests that he and the coaching staff feel a window has opened for a meaningful run in the playoffs. Landing an upgrade at quarterback in Philip Rivers and a huge upgrade on the defensive line in DeForest Buckner is just the beginning of an attitude shift.
The interior defensive line rotation has gotten deeper, the rotation at defensive end is competitive, the running back committee is daunting, the wide receiver room should receive boosts through the draft and in the training room. The linebacker group is possibly the best the Colts have had in Indianapolis and the offensive line may be the best in the league.
All of that won’t matter, though, unless the team is able to translate talent and health onto the field. In what has been called one of, or possibly the weakest schedule in the NFL, the Colts must find a way to win big games — particularly on the road. These are the five most important road games on the schedule.
1) @ Tennessee Titans — Week 10
Throughout much of the Colts versus Titans relationship, Indianapolis has dominated. One of the primary factors in that history is that while Indianapolis has had relative stability at quarterback, the Titans have been searching for a long-term answer. When the Titans acquired Ryan Tannehill last year and finally put the Marcus Mariota experiment to bed, it’s not surprising they saw real improvement.
The Titans have a stout defense led by one of the better linebackers of his generation, Mike Vrabel. He learned under Bill Belichick in New England and inherited a lot of defensive talent. The Titans have a particularly strong defensive line and have put together an impressive secondary.
Add a dominant offensive line and running game to a stifling defense and you have a recipe for controlling the ball, time of possession, and putting significant pressure on opponents once you establish a lead.
When you consider that the Jacksonville Jaguars have fallen apart very publicly and that Bill O’Brien is dealing away some of his best players or inferior players and worse contracts, the Titans game in Nashville could be the most important divisional game of the season.
What may happen is that two team with very similar play styles battle it out in a close game that determines the fate of the AFC South — and guarantees one of the teams a spot in the playoffs.
2) @Cleveland Browns — Week 5
The only teams I can think to compare to the Cleveland Browns today are the New Orleans Saints from 1967 - 1986 and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1983 - 1996. The last time they made the playoffs was 2002 and the last time they won a playoff game was 1994. They’ve been one of the most hyped franchises in the league for years — thank in no small part to having top draft picks regularly.
Sadly, no number of top draft picks seems to get them over the hump. They are desperately thrashing about with their front office and any head coach in Cleveland is looking at a short lifespan. Consider that the last head coach to spend more than four seasons in the role for the Browns was Bill Belichick from 1991 - 1995.
On paper, the Browns have a pretty star-studded, impressive roster. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield (backed up by Case Keenum) gives the offense some real fire power. Sheldon Richardson, Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, and Denzel Ward are all big playmakers for the defense.
What makes the game important is that, early in the season, it’s an AFC game that will matter when playoff spots and seeding is announced. Also, it would be a disappointment to come into the season with confidence and leave Cleveland with an otherwise avoidable loss. The Colts want to bring some confidence into the heart of their schedule and losing to the Browns isn’t a good way to find it.
3) @Las Vegas Raiders — Week 14
East coast teams winning on the road on the west coast has been historically challenging. There will be a brand new stadium, the Las Vegas lights, and a team that has been aggressively put together facing the Colts in the final stretch of the season. Playoff seeding will start to present itself and a team like the Raiders will either be one of the top teams in the west or fighting for its playoff life.
Any AFC team matters but the Raiders stole a game from the Colts a year ago in Indianapolis and it’s time for redemption.
The Raiders have an impressive defensive front that includes Johnathan Hankins, Maurice Hurst, Maxx Crosby, and Clelin Ferrell. Their secondary is lead by physical second-year safety Johnathan Abram and what could become a strong group of cornerbacks with rookie Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, and Prince Amukamara.
QB Derek Carr will be throwing to an improved group of pass-catchers featuring rookie Henry Ruggs III, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Nelson Agholor and rookie Bryan Edwards. He will also have Darren Waller and Jason Witten at tight end and second-year stud running back Josh Jacobs in the bakfield.
How quickly will the new Raiders get it all figured out? This game could be the start of a longer rivalry with playoff seeding or a playoff berth on the line.
4) @Pittsburgh Steelers — Week 16
Another big AFC matchup against the Steelers. This is a team the Colts have struggled to beat. The Steelers have won the last six meetings. The last time the Colts won was in 2008. The Colts have only won twice in eighteen meetings dating back to 1985.
If Indianapolis intends to assert itself as one of the teams to beat in the AFC, the team must find a way to get this monkey off of their backs. Doing so late in the season, in what might be the final push to the playoffs, and in a game that could very well result in home field advantage or even knock one of the two teams out of the playoffs would be a great way to start.
If QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, this will be a particularly tough contest. He has great chemistry with JuJu Smith-Schuster, a strong group of tight ends with Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron, and a dynamic backfield led by James Conner. Their defense is always tough, especially in Pittsburgh, and features Cameron Hayward on the interior — one of a very few players to give Quenton Nelson fits.
This could be gut check time for the Colts and a big victory in the Steel City could give the team the kind of momentum it needs to carry into the playoffs.
5) @Houston Texans — Week 13
There are plenty of good arguments to be made for moving this game up to second or third on this list. It is a division match-up, late in the season, and winning the division means a ticket to the playoffs. This is the last road AFC South game of the season.
The reason it finds itself down the list is two-fold. First, the Colts need to perform well enough early in the season to put themselves in the driver’s seat by Week 13. Unless things have gone off of the rails, the Texans game will have less late-season importance than the non-divisional games against the Steelers and the Raiders. Second, the Texans are a bit of a mess right now.
It’s way too early to make reliable predictions but Houston has too many players on the back end of their careers that are far too important to their success. JJ Watt is one of the most dominant players I’ve ever seen on the defensive line. He is the heart of the team and has had a Hall of Fame career. He is also 31 years old and his body is started to wear down. Whether he is even healthy by Week 13 is a legitimate question.
Linebacker Whitney Mercilus has been a dominant pass rusher throughout his career. He is 29 years old and is in his 9th season. If Mercilus misses any meaningful time, it will definitely hurt the Texans’ ability to pressure to the quarterback. Their backfield is led by David Johnson and Duke Johnson, who are both entering their sixth year in the league. Neither is a bell cow runner and neither are likely to make it through a whole season without missing games.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the key to their ability to win games. He will have to utilize an impressive receiver room that includes Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills. One thing is troubling with that group though, almost every one of those players has either underperformed in recent years, is aging, or has trouble staying healthy. It’d be nice to have a player like DeAndre Hopkins.
Maybe Bill O’Brien knows something the rest of the league doesn’t. Maybe he’s the next coming of Bill Belichick. If he’s not, the Texans could have a disaster on their hands and may be very close to a rather significant rebuild.