There's ugly, and then there's Broncos-Colts ugly. Both AFC teams entered 2022 expecting to be contenders, especially after adding big names at quarterback. But Denver, with Russell Wilson, has struggled to a 2-2 start under new coach Nathaniel Hackett, garnering national attention for crunch-time blunders and erratic play-calling. And Indy, with Matt Ryan, has been even worse, opening 1-2-1 while scoring the fewest points of any team in the NFL.
It's fitting, then, that Week 5 will open with these two underperformers squaring off. Because it's now or never, it seems, in both cities. There's a long road ahead on the 2022 schedule, but "Thursday Night Football" will offer a chance for each flailing QB-head coach duo to turn the page and get a much-needed victory. Hackett and Wilson are trying to keep pace with the Chiefs and Chargers, while Frank Reich is desperate to avoid the wrath of impatient owner Jim Irsay, let alone give the Titans and Jaguars a run for their money in the AFC South.
Two weeks removed from a tough upset of the Chiefs, are the Colts positioned to play spoiler again, this time at Mile High? Or is Russ ready to rally the banged-up Broncos, who are coming off a close loss to the rival Raiders? Either way, this one could have consequences throughout the AFC. Here's everything you need to know about the matchup:
How to watch
When the Broncos have the ball
Cover your eyes. (We kid.) Wilson actually had some of his best throws of the year during Denver's Week 4 loss to the Raiders; in fact, his deep ball probably saved Hackett from being embarrassed by Josh McDaniels in a battle of embattled new coaches. But the offense as a whole has been something of a sluggish, sputtering machine since opening kickoff.
Courtland Sutton has been getting open to emerge as Wilson's favorite target, reminding fans of his days as an underrated WR1, and Javonte Williams remained a tough tackle as the club's lead back going into last week But now Williams is out for the year with a serious knee injury, and there will be more pressure on Russ to elevate the supporting cast. Wilson was already pressing in some areas, taking the eighth-most sacks in the NFL through Week 4 while trying to extend dead plays.
In this matchup, Hackett will be challenged to balance Wilson's health -- the QB "dinged" his shoulder against Las Vegas -- with leaning on Wilson's best skill (i.e. throwing deep). K.J. Hamler came alive on the receiving end of a Wilson bomb in Week 4, and theoretically the speedy wideout can get by an Indy secondary that's got older and/or banged-up safeties in Rodney McLeod and Justin Blackmon. Then again, Russ is also built to feed off the run, which means veteran Melvin Gordon and newcomer Latavius Murray, just signed off the Saints' practice squad, should have a heavy hand in the game plan.
The Colts still boast a stingy defense, but they're also battered, with linebacker Shaquille Leonard and defensive end Tyquan Lewis already ruled out. Denver has to be able to establish a ground game to control Thursday's showdown, and perhaps those absences will help their cause. At the end of the day, though, especially in the bigger picture, it's up to Hackett to make Wilson feel more comfortable operating the offense, because so far, the ex-Seahawks star has relied too much on fourth-quarter heroics. Whether it's leaning more into Wilson's legs or letting the QB air it out even more, the franchise's investment demands No. 3 become more of a difference-maker.
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When the Colts have the ball
Typically, this means it's Jonathan Taylor time. And let's be clear: their offense still runs through the star running back. The problem is, their once-vaunted line has been slowly degrading for years, to the point Taylor has averaged "just" 4 yards per carry and broken off just a pair of 20-yard carries this season. And now, on top of that, the reigning rushing champion is sidelined with his second lower-leg injury in as many weeks. Backups Nyheim Hines and Deon Jackson figure to split the workload as Reich prays for Taylor's speedy and healthy return down the road.
The way Ryan has fared under center, of course, it's a wonder what "down the road" will hold for Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, whose refusal to properly add depth up front and out wide has put a heavy burden on an aging, declining 37-year-old QB. Ryan has been tough, there's no doubt, absorbing an average of almost four sacks per game, but his ball security is at a career-low amid the turmoil; he's already thrown five picks and fumbled nine times. The only constant for him has been Michael Pittman Jr., who figures to draw the attention of Broncos standout Patrick Surtain II on Thursday.
Hard as it may be, the Colts' best play in Denver is probably to stick to the ground game, even without a healthy Taylor. Getting the ball out of Ryan's hands quickly would be ideal for the sake of both his physical and mental health. That could mean an especially large package of plays designed around Hines, whose best attribute is catching passes out of the backfield.
It helps that the Broncos have been more susceptible to the run with Surtain patrolling the secondary, on Sunday allowing Josh Jacobs to break out with 144 yards. If the Colts' own defensive line gets some push against a Denver front that struggled mightily in Week 4, and they control the ball by rushing off the edges, where the Broncos will be without injured standout Randy Gregory, Indy should have a chance to win the time-of-possession battle in a low-scoring affair.
If things stay close, however, there's the matter of Ryan, who's practically immobile at this point in his career, outdoing Wilson with the game on the line. That's not to say Ryan can't do it, but the one thing Wilson has proven since putting on the orange jersey is that he's still got some clutch touch down the stretch.
Prediction: Broncos 22, Colts 17