When the NFL released the 2019 schedule this past spring, the Los Angeles Chargers must have felt some anxiety over drawing the Indianapolis Colts in the season opener. The Colts, fresh off a 10-6 season that saw quarterback Andrew Luck revive his career and head coach Frank Reich establish himself as one of the most creative offensive minds in football, looked to have improved their already talented roster. With a few breaks, Indy seemed like a team capable of making a Super Bowl run, hardly an ideal Week 1 opponent.
The matchup has changed considerably in the time since. Andrew Luck shocked the football world by announcing his retirement following the Colts' third preseason game. That decision forced Jacoby Brissett, the fourth-year quarterback who filled in during Luck's lost 2017 campaign, back into the spotlight. With a new man under center, Indianapolis shifts from an aggressive offensive attack that finished last year second in pass attempts to one that likely needs an effective ground game to mitigate Luck's absence.
Luck's departure from Indianapolis pushed others in the division to take advantage. The Houston Texans mortgaged the future to acquire up-and-coming left tackle Laremy Tunsil and provide quarterback Deshaun Watson with his first competent blindside protector since entering the league. Texans head coach and de facto general manager Bill O'Brien had multiple motivations for consummating the trade, but the suddenly open AFC South surely contributed to his thinking.
Luck's retirement shook the public's faith in the Colts as well. Prior to his announcement, the team had 6/1 odds to win the AFC and 12/1 to win the Super Bowl, according to the Westgate SuperBook. Those figures dropped dramatically since, now standing at 30/1 and 60/1, respectively.
But while the Colts' might appear rudderless, they still present a unique challenge to the Chargers.
The last time the Colts entered a season without Luck, they acquired their replacement just before Week 1. That quarterback, the aforementioned Brissett, treaded water for the first half of the year as he learned Indianapolis' offense on the fly. Meanwhile, his supporting cast including T.Y. Hilton, a 34-year-old frank Gore, and little else of note. A leaky offensive line contributed to Brissett absorbing a league-worst 52 sacks, and the defense could do nothing to slow the bleeding.
The situation looks quite different this time around. Brissett enters his second year in Reich's offensive system and took reps with the starters throughout training camp and the preseason. Additionally, the Colts possess a deep and diverse backfield led by Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. Hilton remains the top target in the passing game, but now Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle form a dynamic tight-end duo. And perhaps most importantly, Indy also boasts a premier offensive line that allowed just 18 sacks all last season. Though the offense won't match the heights it reached with Luck at the controls, its play shouldn't drop off as severely as it did in 2017.
Likewise, the Colts' defense has taken tremendous strides since Luck's first absence. The unit features reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard, a sideline-to-sideline linebacker that produced seven sacks and six combined interceptions and fumbles in his first NFL campaign. The team added veteran pass rusher and longtime Chargers killer Justin Houston in free agency and reinforced an already solid secondary with second-round corner Rock Ya-Sin.
Even without Luck, the Colts look more complete on both sides of the ball as they have at any point since the Peyton Manning era. They remain underdogs against the Chargers on Sunday. However, Indianapolis has the horses to exploit a Derwin James-less defense and harass Philip Rivers behind a shaky offensive line. The matchup might not induce as much anxiety as it did months ago, but it remains far from an easy win for Los Angeles.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH