Both the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos entered 2022 rebuilding their offensive systems around a new quarterback. Two veterans with Super Bowl experience, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson, were acquired with the hopes of launching these storied franchises back into the AFC championship conversation.
Instead, as we reach this season's one-quarter mark, the jury is still out on both heading into their "Thursday Night Football" tilt on Prime Video. The Colts have just one win in the Ryan era, but it's a big one: a 20-17 upset of Kansas City where their offense outpaced Patrick Mahomes during an impressive fourth-quarter comeback.
The 2-2 Broncos have a win of their own to hang their hat on. The problem? It was an 11-10 defensive squeaker over the surging San Francisco 49ers. Surrounding that have come some frustrating losses and questionable decision-making, first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett under fire since a decision to attempt a 64-yard field goal to win the season opener. (Spoiler alert: He lost.)
But in a year defined by parity, both teams remain within striking distance of their divisions early on. The Colts sit just a half-game out in an AFC South where no team is above .500. The Broncos sit just one game back of Kansas City in the AFC West. Which team will take a step forward in their bid to stay on track?
Thursday Night Football: Indianapolis (1-2-1) at Denver (2-2)
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the Broncos' offense recover from injuries?
Denver's nightmare in last week's loss at Las Vegas was exacerbated once starting running back Javonte Williams went down in the third quarter. A torn ACL (and LCL) in his right knee leaves the promising second-year player out for the year after racking up 204 yards in three-plus games, a total which left him 12th in the AFC.
His shoes will be filled by Melvin Gordon III, a former 1,000-yard rusher who has not inspired confidence with four fumbles already this season. The last one came on his first carry of the game against the Raiders, leading to a turnover and 68-yard touchdown return that cost his team a lead it never regained.
"Just got to be better, man," Gordon said after the game. "Ain't no excuse for it."
Gordon's presence becomes even more of a focus with Hackett revealing this week that Russell Wilson is "dinged up" with a shoulder injury suffered during a Maxx Crosby sack on Sunday. Wilson still completed his best game of the season, throwing for 237 yards, three total touchdowns (two pass, one rush), and no turnovers while averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt.
A hobbled Wilson would put pressure on the Broncos' ground game to produce against a Colts rush defense ranked sixth in the NFL, allowing just 89.5 yards per game. Take away the Titans' Derrick Henry, in a class of his own, and the average for the Colts drops to just 77.0 yards a game, making it an uphill battle for Gordon to establish himself.
Mike Boone (3 att., 20 yds. this season) is also in the mix and Latavius Murray could be as well. Denver signed the nine-year veteran off of New Orleans' practice squad this week, ironically after Murray was elevated to the active roster to help fill in for an injured Alvin Kamara in the Saints' game in London against Minnesota. Murray went for a team-high 57 yards with a score (on 11 carries) in the 28-25 loss before he was returned to the practice squad.
2. Can Matt Ryan play turnover-free football?
Ryan threw for a season-high 356 yards in the 24-17 loss to the Titans on Sunday. His 1,125 passing yards rank third in the AFC. But once again, the veteran cost his team more than he helped it, a lost fumble and an interception leading to 14 Tennessee points that made the difference.
It adds up to an ugly season of self-induced mistakes. Ryan's nine fumbles lead the NFL by three over anyone else; his five interceptions are tied for second in the NFL behind Matthew Stafford's six. That's helped contribute to a minus-six turnover margin for the Colts, the second-worst mark in the NFL behind the New Orleans Saints (-7).
"Turnovers are… one of, if not the, most important one or two most critical stats when it comes to winning ball games," Ryan said this week. "I've got to do a better job protecting it."
It's debatable he'll do that against a Broncos defense tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks. They're dealing with yet another injury (linebacker Randy Gregory went down with a knee problem on Sunday and has been put on IR) but still have Pro Bowl linebacker Bradley Chubb (three sacks already this year). A shaky Colts offensive line will have their problems keeping the pass rushers at bay; it's just a question of whether Ryan can minimize the damage.
3. What do the Colts do without the reigning rushing champion?
What's going on with last year's dark-horse MVP candidate? Jonathan Taylor has lost his mojo after an energetic season-opening, 161-yard performance against the Texans.
Since then? He's picked up 167 yards on 50 carries (3.3 ypc) while being held without a rushing touchdown. To add insult to injury, he rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss, and after not practicing during the short week, he was ruled out Wednesday afternoon.
This is a missed opportunity for Taylor against a Denver defense that allowed a season-high 212 rushing yards against the Raiders, including 144 to Josh Jacobs. With Taylor out, fifth-year pass-catching back Nyheim Hines will presumably take the reins after venting some frustration off the field.
"Every year, we have a new quarterback," Hines, a Colt since 2018, told The Athletic this week. "So each year we have growing pains while we sit here and watch Tennessee, which has had [Ryan] Tannehill, what, my whole career? And each year we're restarting and we have to turn the page."
Now, Hines has his chance to move the Colts offense forward on his own. The problem? He's never had a 100-yard rushing game in his career, carrying the ball just eight times this season for a paltry 11 yards.
Phillip Lindsay, who put up back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Broncos in his first two seasons in the league (2018-19), could get his chances. Lindsay, who appeared in 14 games for the Texans and Dolphins last season (combined 2.8 ypc), is currently on Indianapolis' practice squad but could be elevated to the active roster for Thursday night.
The Colts came into the year knowing Ryan, at 37, might be past his prime as an NFL quarterback. Without Taylor and with the offensive line in disarray, the Broncos' defense is primed and ready to show Ryan just how much.
Expect an ugly, low-scoring game with the Denver offense adjusting to life without Williams and Wilson playing at less than 100 percent. But we just saw the Broncos win that type of game a few weeks ago against a better opponent. The Colts are no San Francisco, their likely loss leaving head coach Frank Reich on the hot seat with an un-Indy-like 1-6 record in his last seven games.
Prediction: Broncos 16, Colts 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
*Price as of publication.