Thursday night is it for the Colts.
The importance of games in mid-November is sometimes overestimated, but not this one. When the Colts match up against the Titans in Nashville Thursday night, the season will be on the line – and so will the rebuilding effort of GM Chris Ballard.
It’s been enjoyable to watch the drafts, free agent signings, coaching changes, and internal development of the Colts over Ballard’s four offseasons. The roster and leadership improved bit by bit. But now it’s time for those upgrades to produce a critical win.
Ballard has been honest, driven, and confident that the path he follows will lead the franchise back to consistent success. His acquisitions have put a premium on quality people who embrace a team-first mentality as well as dynamic speed. Head coach Frank Reich leads in the way Ballard endorses.
Yet the Colts appears to be nestled in mediocrity. They struggle against the better teams in the NFL while beating lesser opponents, which translates to winning against teams with lesser quarterback play. There is no more important position in football, and without a quarterback the ranks in the top 15, it’s very hard to earn a spot in the postseason. Rivers QBR of 62.7 is ranked 19th of 32 NFL starters.
Not all of what the Colts have become falls on Ballard’s shoulders. Andrew Luck’s retirement caused a tectonic shift in the roster and organization. Without an elite level quarterback, winning in the NFL is virtually impossible. Finding an elite level quarterback is almost as difficult as winning without one. But excuses don’t play well in the NFL. Teams are what their record says they are – and the Colts are 5-3 with a game in Nashville that will go a long way toward determining who wins the AFC South.
With a win, the Colts pull into a 6-3 tie with the Titans atop the division. They would also own the tie-breaker because of that head-to-head advantage. If they lose, Tennessee goes to 7-2 while the Colts fall to 5-4. That two-game deficit would be made more problematic by the head-to-head loss. A loss would make the return game against the Titans on November 29th an absolute must-win.
Making things more problematic is the opponent snuggled in between the two Titans tilts – the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is having in MVP caliber season with a stratospheric NFL leading QBR of 87.6. He has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, which were both against Tampa. As a counterpoint, Colts QB Philip Rivers has a QBR 25 points south of Rodgers, and has thrown 10 TD passes, and seven picks.
The problem is not that Rivers stinks. He doesn’t. But Rodgers is great, enjoying one of his best seasons as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is also a significant issue twice over the next three games with 19 TD passes, three picks, and a QBR of 78.3. He isn’t the dynamic force Rodgers is, but he’s inside the top 10 – a status Rivers has not earned in the last seven seasons.
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and the fact remains that despite Rivers being an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, his limitations cause a competitive disadvantage with teams featuring top 10 quarterbarbacks. That’s not to crap on Rivers – he has performed as expected.
Through a scheduling quirk, the Colts have yet to face a quarterback whose QBR is ranked in the top 14. Over the next eight weeks, they will compete against top 14 QBs six times.
If the Colts are going to be taken seriously in 2021 without a serious upgrade at the quarterback position, they need to find a way to elevate Rivers through scheme, protection, and explosive yards after catch abilities, while eliminating their opponents’ apparent advantage a the most important position in football.
Otherwise, all those draft picks and cultural changes don’t mean a thing in terms of the only criteria that matters – wins and losses.
This season hangs in the balance on Thursday night in Nashville. The Colts will either rise up and validate Ballard’s vision and Reich’s leadership or they won’t. At some point, despite Luck’s retirement, accountability belongs to them.