Sunday’s starting quarterbacks for the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles have one trait in common: injured reserve. Andrew Luck’s comeback, one of the early success stories of this promising 2018 season will be joined by Carson Wentz’s official return to the field for the Eagles.
Can Wentz, now in his third year, recapture the magic that made him a potential MVP candidate before suffering a torn ACL against the Rams? His team, well cared for by backup Nick Foles, still went on to win the Super Bowl. But a rocky 1-1 start has shown there’s no question this team is better with Wentz under center. Despite missing many receiving weapons his return should immediately provide a mental boost to the offense.
The Colts, meanwhile are off to a similar 1-1 start as Luck adjusts to his full-time return to football. He ranks just 21st in the NFL in passing two games in, showing some warts with three early interceptions. But every week should show continued improvement after a serious shoulder injury derailed the three-time Pro Bowler’s career.
Who will prevail in a battle of two star quarterbacks still on the mend?
Indianapolis at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -7
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Wentz fare in his first game back?
By all accounts, the Eagles' training staff played it safe when it came to their franchise quarterback’s return. Throughout NFL preseason, Wentz was seen throwing bombs in practice and appeared ahead of the curve in regaining mobility. But the team knew they had a solid backup in Foles and didn’t feel it was worth the risk to rush Wentz back.
Even this year, Foles wasn’t to blame for the Eagles’ 1-1 start; he did a respectable job as caretaker and his name will be cemented in Philadelphia sports history forever. But it’s Wentz who provides a playmaking ability the offense sorely needs with top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery questionable (shoulder), top running back Jay Ajayi out (back) and all-purpose weapon Darren Sproles sidelined (hamstring) all sidelined.
That’ll lead to an early push for Wentz to make plays with his legs. And don’t expect the 25-year-old to hold back after nine months of excruciating rehab. The extra time was spent making sure that when he returned to the field, there would be no hesitation in releasing him from the pocket to scamper. His 299 rushing yards last year ranking ninth in the NFL among quarterbacks.
“I feel extremely confident moving around, on the run,” Wentz told the media this week. “I’ll find ways to extend time in the pocket and make plays down the field. I don’t think that’s ever going anywhere.”
One player who will benefit immediately from Wentz’s return: tight end Zach Ertz. That duo established a special connection last year and Ertz is already hot, posting 11 catches for 94 yards last Sunday against Tampa Bay. He and Nelson Agholor are the top (and perhaps the only) two pass-catching weapons left after free agent signee Mike Wallace’s injury last week.
2. Can the Colts’ defense keep it up?
Through two weeks, the Colts have a top-10 defense despite allowing 332 yards per game. It’s their rush defense that’s stood out (83 yards allowed per game) and Sunday presents a prime opportunity with the Eagles’ top two running backs on the sideline. Young Corey Clement, in just his second year in the league becomes the primary option with Ajayi and Sproles out.
It was shoddy defensive play that led to the end of head coach Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last year as the Colts ranked 30th in the league in both yards allowed (367.1) and points per game (25.3). But there are signs of a turnaround so far in 2018. Three forced fumbles in two games ranks third in the AFC. The Colts also have five sacks this year, on pace for 40 after slumping to dead last in the conference last year in that category.
The Eagles are missing so many players and Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters is hobbled by an injury, even if he does play. It’s an opportunity for this group, considered underwhelming heading into the season to make a statement on a larger stage.
3. Can Luck beat the Eagles' secondary?
The Eagles’ defense, typically their strong suit, failed them badly last week against Tampa Bay. Last week, they gave up two 75-yard touchdown plays from scrimmage, one more than they allowed the entire 2017 season. Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like a Pro Bowler, throwing for 402 yards, four TDs and a QB rating of 144.4.
In theory, that means Luck should have an opening. The issue is whether he’s willing to throw deep. He’s averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt thus far as recovering arm strength has the Colts playing it safe on offense. To be fair, there’s a limited list of offensive weapons beyond wide receiver T.Y. Hilton that has made it tough for the Colts to get separation against the secondary.
But the fact remains just three of Luck’s 60 completions have gone for more than 20 yards. Adding back that component to his passing game is necessary against an Eagles defense that’ll stop the run.
Carson Wentz’s return overshadows the wild card in this matchup as Colts rookie head coach Frank Reich returns to face his former team. Reich, who took the job when Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had a last-minute change of heart, remains close with Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and may know their playbook better than anyone else in the league.
“It’s special,” Reich said of his return. “A lot of times in this business, usually when you are going back someplace, you are usually going back to someplace you got fired from and so this isn’t like that. I have nothing but great memories and tremendous experience in the two years there.”
That intimate understanding of how the Eagles operate should have the Colts hang longer than expected. But as the game goes on, both the talent gap and Wentz’s return should prove to be too much in the second half. Despite the injuries, this Eagles team is too talented to start the season off 1-2.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Colts 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.