INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest as the Indianapolis Colts open the season Sunday against the Jaguars in Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field.
- Kickoff: 1 p.m.
- Broadcast: CBS4
The expectations – inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center and across the NFL landscape – are for the Colts to make a run at their first AFC South title since 2014 and contend for just their second playoff berth in the past six seasons. (It’s still hard to believe they’ve missed the postseason in four of the last five seasons.)
That isn’t likely to happen unless they can snap a bunch of streaks.
The Colts have lost their last five road games against the Jaguars, including four in Jacksonville (the 2016 misstep came in London). Their last victory at TIAA Bank Field: 44-17 in ’14. They’ve lost six straight openers overall and seven straight road openers.
We can’t pin that latter streak on anyone in particular. Incredibly, it’s spanned three head coaches: Frank Reich, Chuck Pagano and Jim Caldwell. The last season-opening win on the road: Manning Bowl I in 2006. That season opened with a 26-21 win against the New York Giants in The Meadowlands and ended with the Lombardi Trophy in South Florida.
T.Y. Hilton hasn’t walked off the field in Jacksonville with a spring in his step since that ’14 victory. He’s ready for Indy to finally get it right.
“You’re going to see a different team and it’s going to show Sunday,’’ he said. “Tune in, gonna be fun.’’
Philip Rivers is downright giddy at the prospect of working behind one of the NFL’s top offensive lines.
“It’s a heck of a group,’’ he said. “The fact that these guys played every game last year together and certainly have been together now for a handful of years, I think that’s huge.
“It makes you feel good as a quarterback.’’
Especially a 38-year QB who wasn’t mobile when he was 25. Rivers ranks 6th in NFL history with 397 TDs and 59,271 yards. He’s also been sacked 445 times, 11th-most in league history. Rivers has been sacked at least 30 times in nine of his last 10 seasons, including 34 times last year.
“Philip is great with protection calls,’’ Reich. “He’s really smart at getting the ball out of his hands. He has a really, really good offensive line in front of him, so I think we will be very productive there.’’
As proficient as the Colts’ line was last season, the protection still allowed 32 sacks, including three in each Jacksonville meeting. That was tied for 9th-fewest in the league, but Jacoby Brissett probably avoided a dozen with his strength and agility in the pocket.
The Jaguars endured a double-digit loss season in ’19 (6-10) for the eighth time in the last nine years, but still brought their pass rush every week. They finished with 47, tied for 7th-most in the NFL.
And let’s not forget the Colts contributed to them being nicknamed Sacksonville in 2017 when the Jaguars amassed a league-best 55 sacks. That included getting to Brissett 14 games, including 10 in the 27-0 win in Indy. Over the last six seasons, the Jaguars’ D has 46 sacks in 12 games against Indy.
It remains to be seen whether the Jaguars resemble what they once were in terms of pressure. Of the 47 sacks a year ago, 16.5 came from Yannick Ngakoue (8.5), Calais Campbell (6.5) and Ronnie Harrison (2). All have been traded.
Even so, Jacksonville features 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen, the franchise’s first rookie to make the Pro Bowl on the strength of a team-high 10.5 sacks, and 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson.
It won’t matter one iota, but it’s interesting nonetheless: Rivers is 7-2 against the Jaguars with 24 TDs, five interceptions, a 69.1 completion percentage and a 119.1 rating.
Deliver the one-one punch
This is Phase 2 of protecting Rivers. A quarterback’s best friend, along with a nasty o-line, is a robust running game. The Colts were 7th in the league in rushing last year, and strengthened it by adding second-round pick Jonathan Taylor.
We’re still in the camp of the NFL being a QB-driven league – Chris Ballard gave Rivers a one-year, $25 million contract for a reason – but Reich is winning us over with Quenton Nelson’s Run the Damn Ball mentality. Marlon Mack is coming off a career-best 1,091 yards and Taylor’s springboard to the NFL was 6,174 yards and 50 TDs in three seasons at Wisconsin.
Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni have described Mack and Taylor as a one-one punch, but we expect Mack to get the heavier load, at least early in the season. He should be ultra-motivated. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and had hoped for an extension during the offseason. Not only didn’t that happen, but the team drafted his possible replacement.
Yes, it’s a new season, but the Jaguars need to prove their retooled defense will be better against the run. It ranked 28th in yards per game allowed (139.3) and 31st in yards per attempt (a franchise-worst 5.1).
In two shots at that soft Jaguars’ run defense last season, the Colts gouged it 63 times for 396 yards (6.3 per carry). In the win in Indy, they piled up 264 yards as Mack had 109 yards on 14 carries before fracturing his hand and Jonathan Williams had 116 yards on 13 carries off the bench.
Even another substandard season in Jacksonville couldn’t overshadow the rookie season of Gardner Minshew II. The sixth-round draft pick led all rookie QBs in wins (six), a 92.1 rating and six games with at least a 100 rating. He threw for 21 touchdowns and 3,271 yards, each franchise records for a rookie.
Management made it clear Minshew is at least the short-term answer when it traded Nick Foles to Chicago 12 months after giving him an $88 million free-agent contract.
The Colts are confident they are taking a much more competent defense to Jacksonville than the one Minshew carved up in Jacksonville’s 38-20 season-ending blowout. That day, he passed for 295 yards and three TDs.
Sunday, Indy needs to receive some immediate returns on the investment it made to acquire DeForest Buckner. He’s considered one of the NFL’s top 3-technique tackles, the type capable of collapsing the pocket and creating opportunities for himself and Justin Houston, Denico Autry and a top-draw linebacker corps.
It’s also worth noting nickel back Kenny Moore II is back. His value to the defense was never more apparent than when he missed the final four games with a high sprain to his left ankle.
It’s anybody’s guess if Minshew will be able to lean on a reliable running game. After waiving Leonard Fournette his 1,152 yards from a year ago, Jacksonville is heading into the season with the unknown behind him.
James Robinson rushed for 4,444 yards and 44 TDs at Illinois State, but is an undrafted rookie. The projected backups combined for 48 carries and 155 yards last season – journeyman Chris Thompson (37 for 138 with Washington) and recently-signed Dare Ogunbowale (11 for 17 with Tampa Bay).
And the winner is: Colts 27, Jaguars 13
It woul1d make great theater if the passing of the kicking torch from Adam Vinatieri to Rodrigo Blankenship included the undrafted rookie knocking down a game-winning 45-yard field goal in the closing seconds.
We don’t anticipate this being one of those beat-the-clock games. And it shouldn’t be. We might be overhyping the Colts and underselling the Jags, but a team with legitimate playoff aspirations needs to establish itself right out of the gate, especially against a team in reboot mode.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.