A game that was supposed to be about an old-guard MVP quarterback in Denver’s Peyton Manning against the rising star who usurped his throne in Indianapolis in Andrew Luck, could instead circle around the suspensions both sides were hit with earlier this week.
Days before the Colts take on the defending AFC Champion Broncos (or better known as Manning vs. Luck II) on Sunday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the NFL suspended Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay for the first six games of the season and fined him $500,000 after he pled guilty to charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. A day later the Broncos learned star slot receiver Wes Welker had been slapped with a four-game pan after testing positive for amphetamines, a violation of the league’s performance enhancing drug policy.
Though Irsay’s suspension certainly places a rather dark cloud over the Colts, Welker’s absence does leaving Manning and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase searching for a receiver capable of controlling and stalking the middle like the five-time Pro Bowler who totaled 10 touchdowns off 73 receptions and 778 yards last season.
The consensus choice seems to be recently acquired receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who displayed a quick assimilation to the Broncos vast playbook along and solid chemistry with Manning during the preseason. Denver may also turn to Andre Caldwell, or employ tight ends Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme, but even Sanders understands that completely filling the Welker void is impossible.
"This isn't one of those systems where you have an outside receiver and an inside receiver," Sanders told the Denver Post. "Everyone is moving around. And I've told you before, this is one of the toughest offenses I have been a part of because you have to know every single position on the field. Guys already know the concepts, have run those routes. But of course we are going to miss him. He's Wes Welker."
Denver is of course coming off a record-busting 2013, scoring 37.9 points per game largely due to Manning’s record 55 touchdown passes, but the season ended with a shocking 43-8 Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Other than Sanders, the Broncos responded in the offseason by beefing up the defense with cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, committing $109.5 million to a defense that was 19 th overall last year.
Luck and the Colts spoiled Manning’s return to Indianapolis in Week Seven last season with a 39-33 victory. The Colts racked up a 26-14 lead before halftime, and though Manning led two successful fourth-quarter drives for touchdowns his interception and running back Ronnie Hillman’s fumble on the next two Denver series spoiled any chance of a comeback.
The Colts would go on to win six of their next nine games to reclaim the AFC South crown for the first time since Manning headed west. Later they advanced to the second round of the playoffs after erasing a 21-point halftime deficit in a 45-44 Wild Card victory over Kansas City. Luck’s three interceptions put the Colts in that early hole, but the 24-year-old displayed savvy well beyond his years, leading his squad on five touchdown drives on their final six possessions.
Indianapolis is favored to repeat as AFC South champs, making several major additions on both sides of the field. Free agent acquisitions like defensive tackle Arthur Jones will boost a rushing defense ranked No. 26 last year, and while the Colts re-signed cornerback Vontae Davis , last year’s No. 13 secondary could suffer with safety Antoine Bethea bolting to San Francisco. Former New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks joins Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton as Luck’s primary targets and third-year tight end Dwayne Allen returns after missing all but one game due to a hip injury suffered in last season’s opener.
One area the Colts conspicuously left untouched was the backfield. The Colts allowed last year’s leading rusher Donald Brown to sign with San Diego, leaving Trent Richardson as the No. 1 running back. Indianapolis gave up a 2014 first-round pick two weeks into last season for Richardson, who then trudged through the rest of year, never tallying more than 64 rushing yards in a single game and totaling three touchdowns.
Prediction: By the end of the first quarter we’ll be able to tell if either team’s new faces on defense have clicked, with the Broncos stacked secondary their key to success. Both Talib and Ward could give Luck and his receivers trouble all night, leaving Richardson or Allen to make plays. Manning will be his usual sharp self, but Denver might struggle to put the Colts away until midway through the fourth quarter.
Betting Odds: Denver -7.5
Over/Under: 55.5 points
Predicted Score: Denver 37, Indianapolis 27