The Colts and Chiefs meet this weekend after very different starts, but there are only a couple of ways that this game can realistically pan out.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts enter Sunday’s cross-divisional showdown heading in two very different directions to start the 2022 season.
Indianapolis will limp into their home opener literally and figuratively after opening the season with two straight road divisional games against traditionally lowly opponents. Week 1 saw the Colts kiss their divisional sister in a disappointing 20-20 tie with the Houston Texans. They followed up that dud of an opener with another humbling outing in Jacksonville, falling 24-0 to a Jags team trying to avoid a third consecutive season of having the first overall draft pick. The loss to Jacksonville likely opened up some fresh wounds for the Colts, who also lost in Jacksonville in Week 18 of the 2021 season, a loss that eliminated Indianapolis from playoff contention.
The Chiefs, conversely, are coming off of a high-flying season opener against the Arizona Cardinals that saw them amass 44 points, 488 yards of offense, and 5 touchdown passes from Patrick Mahomes. They followed this up with a huge early season win over their division rival Los Angeles Chargers to bring their season tally to 2-0 heading into a game that, at the beginning of the season, looked like it would pose a unique and daunting test visiting the Colts in Indianapolis.
The difference that two weeks can make on the public opinion of a team and a matchup in the NFL is staggering. So much of how we operate, react, and analyze as fans and as media resides in the here and now. This offseason it almost felt like we didn’t even need to play games on the field come September because roster additions by certain teams almost ensured that those teams would be impossible to beat this season. Then, we get into Week 1 and immediately have to power rank and make predictions after seeing 60 minutes (in one instance 75 minutes) of football on the field. Now, after making our way through just 11.8% of the regular season after Week 2 results are in, we have about half the league facing “do-or-die” situations this coming weekend.
As much as I hate to admit it, the Colts are in that territory. Given the addition of Matt Ryan this offseason coupled with the high expectations of a backfield led by 2021 Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Taylor and an offensive line led by the highest-paid guard in football Quinten Nelson, Indianapolis was expected by many to turn the corner and be the favorite in the AFC South and potentially make a strong push in the AFC playoffs. While that could still happen, they need some things, any things really, to start breaking their way.
The Colts have started the year without All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard, who has been out recovering from offseason back surgery, taking much of the bite out of a Colts defense. Promising rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce could miss Sunday’s game against the Chiefs, who could also be without receiver Michael Pittman, Jr, who was out against the Jags rendering the Colts’ aerial attack nearly useless. But, to be fair, so was their run game. Matt Ryan threw 3 picks on a 16-for-30 performance and Jonathan Taylor ran for 54 yards on 9 carriers as the Jags held the ball for over 38 of the game’s 60 minutes.
Being dominated by a quarterback like Trevor Lawrence and a team like Jacksonville doesn’t bode well heading into a showdown against a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes and the suddenly revamped Chiefs, but we can’t sit here and pretend like life is all sunshine and rainbows in the Kingdom, either. The Chiefs will obviously be without rookie corner Trent McDuffie once again. His absence was evident against the Chargers as Rashad Fenton was exposed multiple times over in the first half.
The Chiefs will also be without third-year linebacker Willie Gay, Jr. Gay was suspended 4 games by the NFL on Monday for his role in a domestic violence investigation that led to him being charged with a misdemeanor last January. Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s status is also unknown heading into Sunday’s game.
We know the expectations for both heading into 2022. We know what both teams have done with their 2 opportunities thus far this season. But what does that mean? At this point, nothing.
I was listening to the Arrowhead Addict postgame pod after the Chargers game and heard our own Matt Verderame say something that has been resonating between my ears for four days: in an NFL season, it doesn’t matter what you did or who you beat (or lost to) last week. There are 17 individual battles that define the war which is an entire NFL season for each franchise. Losing one week in one fashion rarely ever dictates your performance the next week, and the same can be said for winning.
Look, the Colts could come out pissed off and smack the Chiefs right in the face. That could happen. The Chiefs could come out and light the sky on fire with their passing attack, much like they did against Arizona. That could easily happen. This could be a sloppy game where both QBs turn the ball over and both teams are running on a treadmill until some unexpected hero decides to make a play and turn the tide. Any way you cut it, we’re going to have two types of games that we could see on Sunday.
The first option: An ugly, sloppy run-fest where both teams struggle to hit the mid-20s in points. The second? A one-sided blowout where one team absolutely laps the other, possibly before we reach the halftime break.
I’ve narrowed these two types of game results down to 3 outcomes that could be had. This may seem obvious at this point, and I know I’m going against my “you can’t predict the future from looking at the past”, but you can certainly spot trends and identify strengths and weaknesses.
Outcome 1: The Colts win a close game after dominating the ground game
We all know how we get here. Jonathan Taylor looked like himself in week 1 rushing for over 130 yards and a touchdown against the Texans. Michael Pittman, Jr had over 120 receiving yards and a touchdown. Why could the Colts not get much going offensively against the Texans, then? Well, Matt Ryan turned the ball over twice and fumbled it 4 total times, and failed to let any rhythm develop for the Colts in the first half.
If Ryan can take care of the ball and the Colts get their ground game going early, dictating the physicality of this contest early, the Chiefs defense could experience the first proverbial “punch in the mouth” of the 2022 season. We remember all too well the feeling of going into Nashville and having the Titans grind the Chiefs to a pulp last year, this game could have a similar feeling if Chris Jones and the Chiefs defense came in expecting the Colts to lay down.
Quinten Nelson and the Colts’ offensive line are likely to come out aggressive after an embarrassing effort in Jacksonville. This unit could cause problems for a Chiefs defense that will be filling the gap left by Willie Gay with a rookie in Leo Chenal and likely a predominant special teamer like Elijah Lee or Darius Harris.
Outcome 2: The Chiefs hang on for a close win on the road
Everything I said right above this? The same thing goes, except in this scenario Indianapolis lets the Chiefs stay a little too close. But it doesn’t come easy.
The Chiefs start out sloppy. The first-15 script is a dud, and the offense can’t get things going while trying to force the issue through the air. We feel like we’re watching the second half of the AFC Championship against the Bengals again. However, while the Colts establish the run essentially every week because that’s all they can do, K.C. follows suit behind a very good offensive line and a running back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire who looks like he’s out to prove something in 2022.
As we’ve come to learn in the last four seasons, if you let Patrick Mahomes get the ball late in games that are within one score—which almost every Chiefs game in the Mahomes era has been—he will likely make you pay. Even if he starts out slow, he can find a way to beat you late.
For the sake of historical accuracy, let’s say the Chiefs drive down the field late against the Colts, get a free play when DeForest Buckner jumps offsides during a Mahomes hard count erasing a Kenny Moore pick on the free play, and finds Travis Kelce for a late game-sealing touchdown.
Outcome 3: The Chiefs stay the course and dominate the Colts
This is the most favorable and the most likely, in my opinion. While Patrick Mahomes did not play his best game against the Chargers he still managed 235 passing yards completing 68.6% of his throws and 2 touchdowns. Yes, that is a bad game for Patrick Mahomes. And yes, that is staggering.
The astronomical expectations for the Chiefs were weathered a bit heading into 2022 for various reasons, but the explosion out of the gates has initiated the forward motion of the Chiefs and Mahomes hype train once again in 2022. With an offense that is deep across the board and a running game that looks to be developing into a nearly equilateral strength to a vaunted passing attack, the Chiefs appear to be on a collision course with another deep playoff run.
Shaquille Leonard missing as the brain and heart of the defense for the Colts essentially makes the unit about as useful as a gun without a trigger against a Chiefs offense that has the ability to pick Indy apart from every angle offensively.
Defensively the Chiefs will need a huge effort from Chenal, Nick Bolton, and the entire front-four rotation for this to happen. Whatever they do defensively, they cannot allow the expected absence of Willie Gay to take away the effectiveness they’ve found stopping the run thus far in 2022. This will be a huge test not only for the players, but for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, linebackers coach Brendan Daly, and even defensive line coach Joe Cullen.
No one knows how this one will play out just yet, but I’d bet you we can count on one of the scripts above to play out on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.