It’s a feeling we’ve become used to as Colts fans. Months of anticipation builds as you wait for the return of competitive football. Yet you end the day deflated after watching the Colts disappoint in another opening day defeat. Although I imagine it’s worse for Jim Irsay, having spent another offseason talking about how important it is to win the first game.
To put it bluntly, the Colts did not play well against Seattle this weekend. Their typically brilliant offensive line was a liability. The defensive line could not get to Russell Wilson, and Wilson used that time to complete the deep touchdowns that killed the Colts. But I’m not here to dwell on the negatives.
Instead, I’m here to tell you not to panic. Not even if the Colts lose to the Rams this weekend and start 0-2. We’ve been saying for months that the Colts have a brutal start to the season; sometimes, this is what having a brutal early schedule looks like. The Colt’s outlook for the rest of the season is much brighter.
Last year I properly panicked after the Colts lost their first game to the Jaguars. I correctly thought Jacksonville would be one of the worst teams in the NFL, so losing to them wasn’t a good sign. Given the Colts hadn’t enjoyed a successful season the year before, I suddenly doubted whether the Colts had improved as much as I thought they had. Of course, I needn’t have worried. The Colts quickly started stringing the wins together, made the playoffs, and probably should have beaten the Bills to go deeper into the postseason.
That loss to Jacksonville did come back to bite the Colts as it gave the Titans the tie-breaker and better playoff seeding. But the Seahawks are a far better team than the Jaguars; it would be understandable to lose to them at any point in the season. Losing to Seattle isn’t the same missed opportunity losing to Jacksonville was last year.
There are so many reasons to expect the Colts to get better in several key areas throughout the season. The most critical and obvious area is the offensive line. Eric Fisher should be back soon (potentially as early as this week), Braden Smith should shake the foot injury that hampered him on Sunday. Nelson and Kelly should both get better as they get more practice and playing time under their belts as they continue to recover from their offseason injuries. Those four fully fit alongside Glowinski will once again be one of the elite offensive lines in the league.
That’ll be music to the ears of Taylor, Hines, and Mack, but it will be most pleasing to Wentz. Wentz played pretty well considering the circumstances on Sunday, which will be encouraging to Frank Reich. Better protection should significantly improve Wentz’s performance. It should allow him more opportunities to utilize his deep ball, especially once TY Hilton is healthy again.
Just as crucial to Wentz’s improvement will be playing time. Injury and COVID meant Wentz scarcely got the opportunity to train with teammates this offseason formally. However, he did manage to meet up informally with various receivers early in the offseason.
Just having playing time with receivers and building those relationships will do Wentz a world of good. Look at how Rivers improved last year after getting a couple of games under his belt. Rivers is a possible Hall of Famer and had one of the best football IQs in the business. If he improved after playing with the team for a few weeks, imagine how much better Wentz could get throughout the season.
It’s harder to pinpoint why the defense underperformed so much against Seattle. This is a defense many inside and outside the building thought could be one of the best in the league this year. They certainly didn’t look like it on Sunday.
It could just be that they had an off first week, just like they did last year. Seattle is just the kind of elite offense that can ruthlessly expose any defensive weakness. Getting Rhodes back should be a big boost for the secondary, and I’m excited for what a healthy Turay can do for the pass rush alongside Paye and Buckner. I’m even more excited for Odeyingbo’s eventual debut, but I’m not counting on Hurricane Dayo being in full force this season.
I’m hoping and expecting Lewis and Banogu to play a more prominent role and make more of an impact throughout the season than we saw on Sunday. So there are reasons to think the Colts defense can still be the elite unit we hoped and expected this year.
The Colt’s schedule should get easier after week two, although there are still several tricky matchups to navigate. Tennessee had a worse day at the office than the Colts, getting soundly beaten by the Cardinals. The Colts only have to wait until week three to face Tennessee.
The Colt’s main aim this season is to win the AFC South and enjoy the excellent playoff seeding that would be their reward. Despite their win, I’d be shocked if the Texans were competitive, and the Jaguars’ bad loss to the Texans suggests they certainly haven’t leaped forward. They’d need to win the division. That leaves the Colts and Titans to battle it out between each other once again.
As underwhelming as the Colts were against the Seahawks, Tennessee was worse against Arizona. Arizona and Chandler Jones, in particular, obliterated their offensive line. Their great offensive skill players were neutralized, had no pass rush, and Murray torched their secondary.
I’m confident the Titans will play better for the rest of the season, but I don’t expect them to improve as quickly or clearly as the Colts. Indianapolis can point to big players like Kelly, Smith, and Leonard, likely playing to their usual levels for the rest of the season. The Titan’s offensive line and defense don’t have those same big names you can pinpoint as the players capable of playing better overnight.
The Colts play Miami in week four. Miami is a good team who just beat the Patriots, but it wasn’t a spectacular victory, and I’m not high on New England this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Miami did make the playoffs this year, but I expect the Colts to beat them.
Suddenly, the Colts could be back to 2-2. Next up, Baltimore should be a challenge, but I don’t expect to be meaningfully better than they were last year. In week six, the Colt’s first game against the Texans, a game they should win decisively. Six games in, the Colts could easily be 4-2 or 3-3.
The rest of the season includes two games against the Jaguars and another game each against the Texans and Titans. Win all those games, and the division is almost secured. Outside of the division, Indianapolis should be favorites against the Jets, Patriots, and Raiders.
Even the more challenging games are certainly winnable. Tampa only just beat a Dallas team, whom I don’t expect to make the playoffs, the Bills lost to the Steelers, having looked insipid in the second half, and the 49ers did their best to give Detroit as many points as they could at the end of their game. The Cardinals certainly looked good against the Titans, but last year raised questions about their ability to sustain that level of performance throughout the season.
Just as I don’t think you should read too much into the Colt’s prospects for the season based on week one, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about any of the Colt’s opponents this season based on one game. But I think there are clearly enough winnable games on the Colt’s schedule this year for them to win the AFC South if they improve the way I expect them to.
Of course, it’ll be at least several weeks before we know whether or not I’m right to be optimistic for the Colts season. Until then, enjoy the return of the NFL and all the highs and lows it entails.