INDIANAPOLIS — Predicting things like strength of schedule months before the start of the NFL regular season is folly.
There always are surprise teams — both good and bad — and injuries can make playing a team at different points in the season a completely unique experience. Even with those caveats in mind, here’s CNHI Sports Indiana’s look at the five most important games of 2020 for the Indianapolis Colts:
SEPT. 13 AT JACKSONVILLE
The season opener would make this list every year, but the Colts’ recent history on the road against the Jaguars makes this matchup even more noteworthy.
Indianapolis hasn’t won in northeast Florida since 2014. In its four victories during that time (the 2016 game was played in London), Jacksonville has averaged 31.3 points and won by an average of 19.8 points.
The Jaguars are entering another rebuilding phase in 2020, and many view the team as a contender for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft and the right to select star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Colts meanwhile have designs on competing for their first AFC South title in six years and returning to the playoffs after a 7-9 meltdown in 2019.
That makes getting off to a fast start and reversing its recent struggles in Jacksonville imperative for Indianapolis.
NOV. 8 VS. BALTIMORE
The Colts should get a marquee matchup just at the midpoint of the 2020 season.
The Ravens posted the best regular-season record in the NFL last season at 14-2 and bolstered the roster after bowing out of the postseason in the divisional round.
Five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell was imported in a trade with Jacksonville, and a rushing attack that set a league-record with 3,296 yards in 2019 added star Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the draft. Head coach John Harbaugh said MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson will focus more on deep shots this year, and a healthy wide receiver Marquise Brown should make that an easier task.
If Indianapolis wants to make a deep postseason run, it must prove it can win games like this showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.
NOV. 29 VS. TENNESSEE
The game against the Ravens is the start of what appears to be a brutal stretch of the schedule.
Four days later, the Colts play their only prime-time game of the season in Nashville. There’s also a home game against the defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers squeezed in before this rematch against the Titans.
Tennessee reached the AFC Championship Game last season and relies on a punishing rushing attack led by Derrick Henry. Playing three games in four weeks against Baltimore and the Titans will take a physical toll on the Indianapolis defense.
But it’s hard to imagine the Colts winning the division without getting a victory in this game at home.
DEC. 6 AT HOUSTON
A week after hosting the Titans, Indianapolis hits the road for another critical AFC South game against the Texans.
Houston has won the division in each of the past two years and still has plenty of star power with quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt leading the way. A rational argument could be made that the Colts’ 2019 postseason hopes died with a 20-17 loss at NRG Stadium in November.
There are few constants in the NFL, but late-season showdowns between Houston and Indianapolis are one. The teams meet again at Lucas Oil Stadium two weeks later, but this matchup could go a long way toward setting the tone for the final month of the regular season.
DEC. 27 AT PITTSBURGH
With Ben Roethlisberger back to health, the Steelers have their sights set on a return to the postseason after two years on the sideline.
Months ahead of time, this game shapes up as the kind of late-season test that serves as a playoff preview. Pittsburgh had a top-five defense against both the run and the pass last year, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick emerged as a game-changer after a mid-season trade from Miami.
If the offense can hold up its end of the bargain, there’s reason to believe the Steelers can push Baltimore in the AFC North and again return to championship contention.
This could be a very difficult hurdle if the Colts’ postseason fate remains undetermined at kickoff, and it’s the kind of game championship caliber teams generally find a way to win.