For the Colts (-8) to win their first season opener since 2013, they need only to play better football than the team believed to be one of the worst two units in the NFL. Like a man running from a bear who only needs to outrun the slowest guy, the Colts don’t need to be the best team in the league, just better than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The primary unknown for the Colts is Philip Rivers, their new old quarterback. Rivers is 38, coming off a 5-11 season that saw him throw 20 interceptions, and the absolute key to success of the team. That’s true, even on a day when the Colts are playing a legitimately bad division opponent seemingly determined to liquidate productive assets in order to improve its draft position.
Here are seven keys to winning getting the Colts getting the season off to a rare winning start:
- Rivers needs to throw it only to teammates. Last season with the Chargers, when Rivers threw one pick or none his team was 5-5. When he threw two or more picks, they were 0-6. Whether those picks were caused by being behind in the first place or whether he put them in a bind with bad reads or throws is unimportant. What matters is that they happened, and losses ensued.
- Make the Jags miss defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue. Colts fans have heard a lot about how the acquisition of three-technique tackle DeForest Buckner will enhance all aspects of the Colts pass rush and overall defense. The Colts need to hope that the opposite is true for the Jags. Ngokoue sacked opposing quarterbacks 38.5 times over his four-year career, and his absence, along with Calais Campell’s, may cause issues for the rest of the defensive front.
- Speaking of that, keep second year game-wrecker Josh Allen from getting to Rivers. Coming off a 10.5 sack rookie campaign, Allen appears to be validating the seventh overall pick the Jags used to select him. if the Colts offensive line is the best in the NFL, as they believe they are, they should be able to keep Allen off Rivers.
- Rodrigo Blankenship – “El Lego” – needs to validate the confidence the Colts have invested in him. Adam Vinatieri was not good last year with his 68% success rate on field goals and 78.6% makes on extra point attempts. El Lego must be much better than that. The 30 points lost from Vinatieri misses cost the Colts wins, and they are not good enough yet to overcome nearly two points squandered per game.
- Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor need to gash the Jags. The inability to finish strong in the 2019 season finale in Jacksonville killed the Colts, and that means the running game was unable to close the deal. The Colts enjoyed a 20-16 halftime lead before being dominated 22-0 in the second half. That cannot happen today. If the Colts get the lead, being able to move the sticks and control the clock is critical to winning. Rivers may still be good enough to get the Colts a lead, but the running game needs to finish the deal today.
- Make Jags QB Gardner Minshew try to beat you. Take away the run, and Gardner Minshew is a reasonable facsimile of Jacoby Brissett. Look at the similarity in stats between the two. In 2019, Minshew was 285-470, 3,271 yards, 21 TDs and six picks. Brissett was 272-447, 3,314 yards, 18 TDs, and six picks. Leonard Fournette is gone, so running the football is going to be tough for the Jags. Minshew is not good enough to lead a one-dimensional offensive attack.
- Rivers thrashes the Jags as he did last year. Without question, Rivers played at his highest level last year in a 45-10 Chargers blowout win at Jacksonville. Completing 16-22 passes for 314 yards, three TDs, and a near perfect passer rating of 154.4, Rivers was stellar. If Rivers puts up those numbers, the Colts win today by a similar score.
If the Colts check four of more of those seven boxes, they will cover the eight. I believe they will.