In another life, or alternate universe, perhaps the storyline would be different. Perhaps Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, way back in 2012, tells his current head coach, Chuck Pagano, that his job is no longer his and that he’s being replaced by offensive coordinator and then-interim head coach Bruce Arians.
Of course, that decision was never even an option for Irsay. Pagano was the Colts’ head coach, even with Arians posting a 9-3 record in Pagano’s absence and winning the AP Coach of the Year as Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia. Pagano would return in Week 17 and the Colts would eventually finish second in the AFC South before being ousted in Wild Card Weekend by Pagano’s former employer, the Ravens, and Arians found himself on a one-way trip to the desert to take over the head coaching vacancy for the Cardinals.
Pagano’s sickness and absence from the team exposed two truths – that Arians is a very good coach and Pagano simply is not. Since Arians assumed his role in Arizona, the Colts have peaked and come crashing down quicker than Vanilla Ice in the’ 90s, and despite a rough year last season, the Cardinals have been one of the best teams in the NFL. The NFL, and life in general, are just kind of funny that way.
Arizona at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cardinals -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Replacing the irreplaceable
In 2016, David Johnson exploded in his sophomore season with 2,118 yards from scrimmage (1,239 rushing, 879 passing) with 20 touchdowns, rocketing him up fantasy draft boards across the country. Now, fantasy owners are in a mad scramble (not that anyone cares about your fantasy team) after news that Johnson will be out at least two months after dislocating his wrist in last week’s 35-23 loss to the Detroit Lions. More importantly, Carson Palmer and the Cardinals’ offense are in a panic to find anyone that can remotely do what Johnson does for their offense.
Spoiler alert: it ain’t Chris Johnson. But the Cards are going to have to try the former All-Pro, cheetah-racing running back anyway, along with a bevy of other backs like Kerwynn Williams and Andre Ellington. This trio combined for 348 rushing yards and three touchdowns playing second fiddle to Johnson last season.
2. Do the Colts even have a quarterback?
At this point, who knows?
What we do know is that it isn’t Andrew Luck for the foreseeable future. What we also know is that Scott Tolzien is not qualified to be an NFL quarterback. After last week’s almost comedic performance, in which Tolzien threw a pick-six on his first attempt (one of two pick-sixes, actually), amassed a measly 128 passing yards, and ended up getting benched in the fourth quarter of a 46-9 spanking, Chuck Pagano has to start the newly acquired Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has the arm strength and mobility to at least convert on a third down, something the Colts did not do at all against the Rams, or at least get creative when the pocket collapses — which with a wounded offensive line, is bound to happen.
Earlier this week Pagano said that both Tolzien and Brissett would both take snaps with the first-team offense before he named a starter, but the evidence is clear — Brissett or, well, I guess T. Y. Hilton? It can’t be Tolzien, not unless Pagano wants to spot the Cardinals a seven-point lead after the Colts’ first offensive drive.
3. Bounce-back Palmer
Carson Palmer is used to bouncing back. He recovered from a career-threatening knee injury in 2006. He rebounded from years of playing with Chad Ochocinco, and feigning his own retirement in Cincinnati. He healed after tearing his ACL for a second time, this time in Arizona. And he somehow found a way to beat out Kyle Boller for the starting spot in Oakland. So one bad game to start a season shouldn’t be a big deal for Palmer.
After Palmer’s extremely sluggish performance last week (268 yards, TD, 3 INTs) coupled with the loss of Johnson, Cardinals fans are on edge, praying that last season’s odd 7-8-1 mark was bad luck and not a sign of the times. Take a breather, Cards fans, the Colts’ defense, and their complete lack of a pass rush, is here to soothe your ruffled feathers.
Without Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis in the lineup and any frontline pressure to speak of, the still dangerous Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of the Cards’ offense is poised to have a field day against a struggling and weary Colts defensive unit that allowed Jared Goff to have the best game of his career a week ago.
Even without Mr. Everything, David Johnson, Arizona still holds the advantage in this matchup from nearly every vantage point. Defensively, look for the Cardinals to put lots of pressure on whoever starts for the Colts under center, forcing them into more turnovers for easy points.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Colts 14
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.