Reigning AFC Champion Denver begins its quest for a return trip to the Super Bowl by hosting Indianapolis tonight on NBC. Broncos’ general manager John Elway has retooled the defense in hopes of giving Peyton Manning and the offense more support. Andrew Luck and the Colts are aiming for a second straight AFC South title and are eager to show that they belong among their conference’s elite teams with a strong showing in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, one of the NFL’s toughest road environments.
Luck was victorious in his first head-to-head matchup against Manning, a 39-33 victory in Week 7 last season that spoiled the latter’s Indianapolis homecoming and handed the Denver its first defeat. The Colts’ task figures to be much tougher this time around considering the Broncos went 9-1 at home in 2013 (including playoffs) and outscored opponents by more than 17 points per game.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Denver -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Denver Gets Defensive?
After the Seahawks manhandled the Broncos on both sides of the ball in Super Bowl XLVIII, general manager John Elway knew he had to make some changes, especially on defense. A flurry of offseason moves resulted in the departure of some key pieces and addition of several new faces, none bigger than defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. The hope is that Ware will pair with Von Miller, who’s returning from a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs, to form one of the league’s most fearsome pass-rushing tandems, while Talib and Ward will not only solidify the secondary, which had its issues last season, but also bring a degree of physicality and a nasty streak that was missing last season. Indianapolis, which put up 39 points and 334 yards on the Broncos last season, figures to be a good test for this revamped defense. Linebacker play could be key, as Denver will be without leading tackler Danny Trevathan, who fractured his knee during training camp and won’t be back until mid-October at the earliest.
2. Indianapolis Changing Its Luck on Offense?
Andrew Luck has been everything advertised and then some since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Not only as he seamlessly replaced Peyton Manning as the Colts’ franchise quarterback, he’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and set some records of his own along the way. Luck is not the issue as far as this offense goes, which could be even more potent with wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen both back from injury and wideout Hakeem Nicks added to the mix. No, the question marks lie up front and in the backfield. Luck has been sacked 73 times in his first two seasons and the offensive line’s outlook is cloudy entering 2014. Projected starting left guard Donald Thomas tore his quadriceps in training camp, ending his season, while potential starting center Khaled Holmes has been hampered by an ankle injury. This unit as a whole was pretty banged up during the preseason and has been able to practice together very little. First-round pick Jack Mewhort will be under pressure to perform from the very beginning, as he is slated to replace Thomas at left guard. As far as running back goes, Indianapolis is still waiting on Trent Richardson to play like the All-American he was at Alabama. Last season, Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per carry after being traded from the Browns prior to Week 3. A healthy Ahmad Bradshaw should provide more depth in the backfield, which is vital with last year’s leading rusher Donald Brown now in San Diego. To put it another way, Brown and Luck combined for more than half of the Colts’ rushing yards (914 of 1,743) and two thirds of the team’s rushing touchdowns (10 of 15) in 2013. Luck and the passing game can’t be expected to carry this offense alone, not if Indianapolis wants to be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
3. The Broncos’ New Workhorses
Denver scored an NFL-record 606 points last season, but saw its leading rusher (Knowshon Moreno) and No. 2 wide receiver (Eric Decker) leave via free agency. The offense shouldn’t miss a beat, however, with second-year running back Montee Ball poised to carry the load out of the backfield and former Pittsburgh wideout Emmanuel Sanders a more than capable pass-catcher. Sanders’ early contributions will be even more critical considering Wes Welker, who was already questionable due to a concussion he suffered during the preseason, is suspended for the first four games for a violation of the league’s policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. That said, the Broncos would actually prefer to run the ball more this season. Ball was more than effective (4.7 yards per carry) in the limited touches he got as a rookie and the coaching staff is ready to see what he can do with a bigger workload. And even without the services of Welker, it’s not like Peyton Manning lacks for options to throw to. After all, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas combined for 157 receptions, 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns. Another potential scary thought for opposing defenses this season: Denver’s offensive line should be even better with All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady back from injury. That’s hard to imagine considering last year’s line gave up just 20 sacks and helped pave the way for an offense that piled up more than 450 yards per game. Also don’t forget that Indianapolis will be without its best pass-rusher, as Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, is suspended the first four games for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Andrew Luck holds a 1-0 edge over Peyton Manning, his predecessor in Indianapolis, but that win came at home. This time, Luck and the Colts have to beat Manning and the Broncos on their home turf. Denver dominated opponents at Sports Authority Field at Mile High during the 2013 regular season to the tune of an average score of 40-23. Even without Wes Welker, the Broncos’ offense should be able to move the ball and get into the end zone fairly easily against an Indianapolis defense that will be without its best pass-rusher. In fact, the more intriguing matchup to watch could be Denver’s retooled defense against Luck and the Colts’ offense. With offensive line issues and questions at running back, this is a good barometer game to see if the Broncos’ defense is as championship-caliber as the offense.