INDIANAPOLIS – I'll stop short of calling this Sunday a must-win game for the Indianapolis Colts. Let's make it a much-preferable-to-win game.
If the Colts lose to another rebuilding team, the Minnesota Vikings, it won't be the end of the world. (It would generate further gnashing of teeth if RG3 and Peyton thrive again, however.) We're looking at a two- to three-year proposition for general manager Ryan Grigson, coach Chuck Pagano and crew to build a contender, if not a “monster.”
That said, this season takes a big turn forward if the Colts knock off the Vikings.
A win would take a big monkey off Pagano's and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck's backs. It would generate substantial positive vibes. It would help everyone around the Colts franchise to breathe a little easier.
“Young or old team, it really doesn't matter,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “Whenever you take a step back, you want to take two or three steps forward.”
Three steps forward might be pushing it. There are still some major concerns as the Colts head to the 1 p.m. Sunday home opener.
The offensive line is in flux, with Joe Reitz out with a knee problem, Winston Justice recovering from a concussion and newcomer Trai Essex (from Fort Wayne) working his way into the mix. A consistent running game is needed. We're still waiting to see whether Dwight Freeney's sprained ankle is a long-term problem.
But there are reasons to believe this week could bring a win, too. Luck and the other rookies have a game under their belts. Wide receivers Austin Collie and T.Y. Hilton are expected to play, giving Luck more ammunition.
And while the Vikings have a couple superstars of their own (running back Adrian Peterson, defensive end Jared Allen and wide receiver Percy Harvin), they have a young quarterback in Christian Ponder and some areas of vulnerability. They beat Jacksonville in overtime in their first game, one that seemed like the Jaguars' for the taking.
The Colts should have an edge playing at home. The game is sold out for all practical purposes (i.e. so it can be broadcast locally) and the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd has proved to be a strong one when things are going well.
“It's huge because we said this coming in, 'You've got to win your home games and you've got to play great at home,' ” Pagano said, then praised the Colts fans.
“If we come out and start like we did in our first preseason opener against St. Louis and we get the crowd into it and get the fans into it, then obviously we are going to feed off their energy.”
Redding takes it a step further. He says the team must establish a level of play at home that would, in fact, be two or three steps ahead.
“This place needs to be our sanctuary,” Redding said. “We have to protect our home and win at home. We have to have a sense of presence that nobody comes in our house and does what they want to do.”
Offensively, the Colts will need to establish more of a running game. The Colts ran only 15 plays on the ground in their 41-21 loss to the Bears, dictated in part by the fact the team was trailing most of the game.
Pagano said, flat out, that Luck's 45 passing attempts were too many.
Of course, it'll be up to the offensive line to establish control and open some lanes for Donald Brown, Vick Ballard and possibly Mewelde Moore. Brown had two good runs against the Bears, but also dropped two short passes that could have went for big gains.
“Certainly, we don't want to come out of a game and have our quarterback having to throw 45 times,” Pagano said. “That's not the balance we're looking for and we've said that since we've got here as a staff.
“We want to be able to run the football which sets up everything else in the pass game. Definitely 45 times throwing the ball is not what we're looking for. At the same time, if people are going to load the box up on us to take away the run game, then we got to execute the short pass game.”
Defensively, the Colts need to find a way to put the pressure on Ponder even if Freeney is unable to play. That will require a slowing of Peterson – the NFL's leading rusher over the last five seasons – which is hardly a given. It would be nice to see the defense generate the pressure it showed in the first two series against the Bears, and sustain it over four quarters.
Luck is probably the first rookie quarterback in history to pass for more than 300 yards in his debut and have a high percentage of fans deem it a disappointment. His three interceptions and the near perfection of Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning made it pale by comparison.
The truth is, he was only a couple plays from an incredible game. I liked the way he accepted blame for mistakes, and appeared eager to get rolling again Wednesday, which also happened to be his 23rd birthday.
“Looking at last week, a quick start would have been converting a couple of those third downs early and putting a drive together, whether a touchdown or a field goal,” Luck said. “That's something we have to do – get a good start.”
A good start would be nice. A good finish better. After all, it's a much-preferable-to-win game.