8:15 PM EST, Prime Video – Line: Broncos -3, Over/Under: 43
Week Five begins with a pair of teams who are still trying to discover their respective identities, as the struggling Indianapolis Colts head to the Rocky Mountains to battle the curious Denver Broncos from Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. Coming into this season, the Colts (1-2-1, 3rd in AFC South) were thought by many (including yours truly) to be the favorite to win the AFC South, while even being a dark horse (no pun intended) to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVII. Well, though there is still time to turn things around, there has been hardly anything to warrant those beliefs, for Indianapolis has been nothing short of a disaster throughout the first quarter of the campaign. So, what in the name of Johnny Unitas is going on in Indy, you ask? Much of that optimism about this team was centered upon their acquisition of (veteran Quarterback) Matt Ryan, who became the latest passer to take the reins under the current regime of (Head Coach) Frank Reich and (General Manager) Chris Ballard. Since Andrew Luck abruptly retired shortly before the 2019 season, the position has been a proverbial revolving door, with a different starter every year, including Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and now Ryan (pictured below). After Wentz was unceremoniously jettisoned following an epic December collapse, Reich was under serious pressure to deliver, and there was a feeling that Ryan would be able to return them to the postseason for just the third time since 2014. However, there has been a serious failure to launch in Indianapolis, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason why. Focusing on Ryan, the 37-year-old was expected to thrive behind what has been one of the better Offensive Lines in the NFL, along with (All-Pro Tailback) Jonathan Taylor (much more on him shortly), who led the league in rushing yards (1,811) and touchdowns (18) in 2021. Ryan himself was coming off a campaign in which he outperformed (rather low expectations) to guide a rebuilding Falcons side to a respectable 7-10 finish. While many of his personal numbers thus far are comparable to his career performance, including completion percentage (66.2%) and yards per attempt (7.3), he hasn’t demonstrated a strong grasp of the playbook quite yet, tossing as many interceptions (5) as touchdowns, leading to the lowest QBR of his stellar career (41.3). With that said, he hasn’t been the recipient of solid protection either, for that aforementioned Offensive Line has woefully underperformed; Ryan has already been sacked fifteen times for an NFL-high 117 lost yards, parlaying to a sack percentage of 8.9%, which is 1.7 points higher than his career-worst and 2.2 points greater than last year. As for Taylor and the running game, their erosion has been even more perplexing; the Colts ranked second in both rushing yards (149.4) and yards per carry (5.1) a year ago, though this season has been a VERY different story, with Reich’s troops ranking TWENTY-SEVENTH in those same categories (87.8 yards on 3.5 yards per rush). Despite averaging slightly more carries per game (20.3), Taylor has looked human on 4.0 yards per carry, a full 1.5 yards fewer than last year when he muscled his way to the rushing title.
When we last saw the Colts, they completely wasted the momentum that they had built for themselves following a stunning upset of the Chiefs (20-17), which led many (including yours truly) to believe that they had indeed turned things around. Unfortunately, last weekend’s division showdown with (two-time reigning AFC South winner) Tennessee proved to be a serious setback for Reich & Co, who were bested in a 24-17 that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. The Titans came out firing on all cylinders in this one, folks, running off twenty-four points on their first four drives of the afternoon, leading by seventeen points until Ryan found (Tight End) Mo Allie-Cox for a 14-yard score shortly before halftime. Granted, the hosts would adjust in the second half, with the Defense forcing the visitors to punt on all but one of their five possessions, though their teammates on the opposite side of the football couldn’t do much more with it; Ryan would drive Indianapolis sixty-seven yards downfield with another touchdown to Allie-Cox to pull within one score, only for a calamity of errors marring their comeback attempt. After punting away a ten-play, 40-yard drive, Taylor fumbled away a short run from the opponent’s 24-yard line, while (young Kicker) Chase McLaughlin missed a 51-yard field goal on the next possession with just over two minutes left to play, which would coincidentally be the last time that his side would touch the football. In the end, Reich’s seat must be getting seriously warm as his charges outgained the Titans (365-243) and held the rock for 33:57, though repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with THREE turnovers. Ryan completed 27-of-37 passes for 356 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while losing a fumble on one of his three sacks, with Allie-Cox hauling in eighty-five yards and those two scores on six receptions, with (Rookie Receiver) Alec Pierce adding another eighty yards on four catches. Unfortunately, in this battle between the league’s last two rushing champions, Taylor fell considerably short of expectations with a scant forty-two yards and that lost fumble on twenty carries. Piling even more misfortune upon the Colts, Taylor entered the game with a lingering case of turf toe and left it with a sprained ankle. The 23-year-old spent the short practice week in walking boot and will miss tonight’s contest altogether. On Defense, Reich finally got (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Shaq Leonard back on the gridiron only to lose him midway through the affair; Leonard missed the first three games rehabbing from offseason back surgery and suffered a concussion and broken nose after colliding with a teammate, relegating him to the sidelines once more. Looking to tonight’s showdown at Mile High, the Colts are 7-3 against the spread in their last ten games as an underdog, along with 7-3 both straight-up and against the spread in their last ten meetings with the Broncos. However, they are 5-4 against the spread in their ten games at Denver, and 6-4 in their last ten as an underdog against the ponies.
Meanwhile, the Broncos (2-2, T-2nd in AFC West) have also experienced a failure to launch despite the addition of a high-profile veteran Quarterback, even though their standing within the division is marginally better than that of their opponent tonight. It’s the beginning of a new era in Denver, with new ownership getting behind (General Manager) George Paton to rebuild one of the league’s most prominent franchises. (Head Coach) Nathaniel Hackett was hired to infuse a long-dormant attack with the nuance and creativity that made him a hit in Green Bay, with the addition of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Russell Wilson designed to unlock an Offense that featured littered with young weapons at the skill positions. Of course, we all know how starved for quality QB play they’ve been in the Rockies, where since Peyton Manning led them to Super Bowl glory in 2015, they’ve cycled through an assembly line of uninspiring passers that would make Browns fans cry. As for Wilson (pictured below), the former Super Bowl Champion had subtly made his desire to leave Seattle known for a few years now, with Hackett and Paton pulling the trigger on a seismic trade, costing them first, second, and fifth round picks in last Spring’s NFL Draft along with another first and second next year, with a number of players also included in the deal. They then proceeded to sign the 33-year-old to a five-year, $242.5 million extension, making him the second-highest paid player at his position. So, how has his integration within the new Offense gone, you ask? Well, with four games in the books it has been very clear that there is still a lot of work that Hackett & Co have to do, for the Broncos have been disappointing on this side of the football to say the least; Denver have averaged just 16.5 points (30th Overall) on 354.5 total yards (21st Overall), including 245.0 yards through the air (18h Overall) on 6.33 net yards per attempt (16th Overall), along with another 109.5 yards (18th Overall) on 4.2 yards per carry (19th Overall). While the yardage has been middling, they’ve taken pretty good care of the football, committing only four turnovers (5th Overall) thus far, though their issues can be pointed to one area of the field: the red zone. Within twenty yards of the end zone, Wilson & Co have left a lot to be desired, scoring just three touchdowns on ten opportunities, which parlays to an NFL-low 30.0% success rate. While Wilson is clearly getting acclimated to both the playbook and his teammates, the Offensive Line has been a disappointment thus far, with the veteran Quarterback suffering a dozen sacks for a percentage of 8.4%, which would be his highest in three years. Honestly, these numbers would look MUCH worse if not for last weekend’s performance at Las Vegas, where even in defeat there were finally signs of life from the attack.
When we last saw the Broncos, they fell 32-23 in their latest trip to Sin City, marking their fifth consecutive loss to their hated division rivals. After narrowly defeating the 49ers (11-10) a week beforehand, Hackett’s troops made promising strides last weekend, opening up with seventeen points on their first five drives of the afternoon, including a five-play, 75-yard possession to head into halftime. Unfortunately, the second half would be another story entirely, as the Raiders relegated them to punts on their first four drives post-intermission, before Wilson piloted the visitors seventy-five yards to pay dirt with a three-yard jaunt into the end zone with 7:16 left in the game. However, after the hosts extended their lead back to two possessions with just over two minutes remaining in the contest, Wilson could muster just five yards in four plays before turning it over on downs, sealing the fate of his team. In the end, there was plenty of good and bad for Denver, who despite getting over their red zone woes, managed just 299 total yards on twelve first downs, converting just 3-of-11 third downs and possessing the football for a disappointing 25:08. Wilson completed 17-of-25 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another twenty-nine yards and a score, sharing the wealth to nine different targets, including (young Receivers) Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, who hauled in fifty-three and fifty-two yards respectively with a touchdown apiece. On the flipside, the ground game was an afterthought with eighty-five on twenty carries (including a CRUCIAL fumble from Melvin Gordon), while Las Vegas had no such problems in this regard, churning out a season-high 212 yards on thirty-eight carries. The ponies did not emerge from this one unscathed either, folks, for there were a number of injuries to notable personnel that could affect them adversely moving forward. First and foremost, (Sophomore Tailback) Javonte Williams tore his ACL early in the third quarter, ending his campaign at just four weeks. Furthermore, (Edge-Rusher) Randy Gregory was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, joining the likes of (young Receiver) Tim Patrick and (Pro-Bowl Safety) Justin Simmons. (Offensive Lineman) Billy Price is questionable with a bulky knee, while (Cornerback) Darius Phillips is also questionable with a tender hamstring. From a betting perspective, the Broncos are a dismal 3-7 against the spread over their last ten games, and a middling 5-5 in that regard when at Mile High. Additionally, they’re 3-7 against the spread in their last ten outings when branded as a favorite, and 4-6 when favored against the Colts in particular.