That is how both of these NFL franchises started their 2022 season in the opening game. Maybe we didn’t realize it at the time, but that was one of the many telling signs early in the year that this wasn’t going to be the season that most expected for the Indianapolis Colts.
Fast forward 17 weeks later, Indy has benched Matt Ryan twice, fired Frank Reich to hire Jeff Saturday as the interim head coach, and is now set to pick in the top 10 of the upcoming NFL draft. Likely in the top five, but that is dependent on the outcome of this matchup and others across the league.
The Houston Texans are set to have the No 1 overall draft selection but a win on Sunday over the Colts and a Chicago Bears loss would move them back to the second pick.
This game doesn’t matter for the playoffs but it does have an impact on the future of these rosters. Here are five things to watch for in the final game of the season for Indianapolis:
Players last game as a Colt
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Not for long. This is a saying about players’ careers in the NFL and the same can be said for their time on a team’s roster. With the disastrous season that the Colts had, it is expected they are going to look to make moves and reset this roster as they look for the quarterback of their future. There are a number of players that are entering free agency in the upcoming offseason.
Here is a list of notable players that could be playing their last game for Indianapolis:
LB Bobby Okereke
WR Parris Campbell
S Rodney McLeod
LB E.J. Speed
WR Ashton Dulin
RB Deon Jackson
CB Brandon Facyson
K Chase McLaughlin
It should be noted that Yannick Ngakoue and Tyquan Lewis are entering free agency but both are currently on the injured reserve list.
They aren’t the only players on the roster that might not return to the team for the 2023 season. As I alluded to, the front office is looking to the answer at quarterback so they may have to consider trading away players in the process.
Sometimes, those players can be entering the final year of their current contract and if the Colts know they don’t have them in the plans for the future then they can look to move them to a team that can use their services in the future.
In my opinion, some of those players that are in that situation and could be playing their last game as a Colt are Stephon Gilmore, Grover Stewart, and Julian Blackmon.
Kenny Moore II will also be entering the final year of his deal but he was placed on IR this week. Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. will be as well but I’d expect the team to try to get an extension done or at least let them play out the final year of their rookie contract.
Plus, there is always the potential of the team looking to move a player that has two or more years left on their current deal so they can help create some cap space or move up in the draft. There are a number of moves that will be happening in the coming months so Sunday is the last chance to appreciate some player’s time with the Colts.
Last impression for Sam Ehlinger
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Sometimes last impressions can do wonders for not only players in the NFL, but people in life. We’ve seen both sides of that for Sam Ehlinger this season. His preseason performance left people in the mindset that he could be the backup to Matt Ryan but it was Nick Foles who entered the season in the role.
Eventually, Ehlinger overtook Foles and when the first decision to bench Ryan, it was the second-year quarterback that the team turned to, not the veteran. In his two career starts in place for Ryan, he went 32/52 for 304 yards and an interception. Ehlinger also ran the ball 11 times for 54 yards.
His last start wasn’t the prettiest outcome for the young quarterback in the 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots. That game removed all optimism from most that Ehlinger could be a quality backup that can start and win your team’s games if needed.
He didn’t light the world on fire in his relief for Foles last week against the New York Giants but he certainly looked a lot better than the last time we saw him on the field. Ehlinger isn’t the quarterback of the future for this franchise but if he wants a shot to compete for the backup spot for the Colts or elsewhere, then this is his opportunity to put on a final impression with the offseason around the corner.
Offensive players of the future
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When a team is not only eliminated from the playoffs but they are one of the worst teams in the NFL and on a six-game losing streak, it can be hard to get excited to watch their final game of the season. If there is one thing that fans of this franchise can at least keep an eye on is the young players on this roster.
For the offense, there are players in the skill position group and on the offensive line to watch. Starting with the receiving group, the focus is on Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce.
Pittman Jr. just needs four receptions to have his first 100-reception season in his career. He’s also 105 yards away from having back-to-back 1,000 receiving-yard seasons.
For Pierce, two receptions will get him to the 40 mark and he only needs 49 yards to get 600 receiving yards in his rookie season.
Then there is the fan-favorite tight end, Jelani Woods. The rookie needs six receptions to get to 30 for the season and 97 yards would get him to 400 for his rookie year. It does look like Kylen Granson will miss the game due to an ankle injury but if he gives it a go then he’s another player to keep an eye on.
Lastly, there is Bernhard Raimann. The rookie left tackle has steadily gotten better since he took over as the starter. He’s shown that he should be in that spot entering 2023 which can allow the front office to focus on other areas of the roster.
Raimann has improved as the year has gone on. Important to remember he came into the NFL with just 18 career starts after never playing OL before college. Some good reps vs. NYG in Week 17. pic.twitter.com/LQuWghETzz
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) January 4, 2023
The Colts’ offense has been difficult to watch over the season and likely will be on Sunday but the individual performances by these players could help give some promise with a strong outing in their last time on the field until next fall.
Defensive players of the future
AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
Similar to the offense, when the Indianapolis defense is on the field, there are some young players on the roster to keep an eye on how they finish the last game of the season. The focus on this side of the ball comes to the defensive line with Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.
Despite dealing with injuries that caused Paye to miss five of the 16 games played this season, he’s passed the marks he set in his rookie season. In 11 games, he has 44 tackles (32 solo), 10 TFLs, 10 QB hits, six sacks, and one fumble recovery. His 10 TFLs are currently tied for the most on the team.
Odeyingbo has really come on in the last month and has been one of the better players on the defense lately. He has 28 tackles (16 solo), four TFLs, 11 QB hits, and five sacks. He’ll be lining up against Laremy Tunsil in this matchup so this is a great test to see if he can take on one of the best left tackles in the NFL.
There are also a few players in the secondary to watch for. Even though I mentioned Julian Blackmon as a player they could potentially move on from, he still has a chance to show he has a future on the team. He’s been playing in the slot for Kenny Moore II. He can show that he can be a versatile piece for the defense with a strong final performance.
It’s Rodney Thomas II who could potentially make Blackmon expendable. The rookie safety took his place earlier this season due to an injury and his solid play led to him splitting snaps with Blackmon. Plus, he likely made Gus Bradley comfortable moving Blackmon to the nickel corner spot when Moore II got injured.
Thomas II has 50 tackles (32 solo), five pass deflections, and three interceptions in his first year in the league. Lastly, there is Dallis Flowers. He is more known for his return ability but due to injuries to Moore II and Isaiah Rodgers Sr., he has been getting play with the starters over the last couple of weeks.
Stephon Gilmore hasn’t practiced this week and Brandon Facyson is dealing with a concussion so there is a possibility that Flowers could be making his first career start against the Texans. The rookie corner can show he’s more than a corner in the final game.
As sad as this can be for Colts fans, it is best that they treat the final game like it’s the preseason and take it in when the young players are making plays for this team.
A loss could be a win
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The Colts won’t admit it but a loss to the Texans on Sunday could end up being beneficial to the franchise’s future. Not only it would lock Indianapolis inside the top five of the upcoming NFL draft but it also gives them a chance to go get whoever they view as the top quarterback of the future. Something that Houston will also be looking to do this offseason.
Losing this game is just the first step of the process. Of course, they would need Chicago Bears to lose to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. It leads to the Bears landing the number one pick over the Texans. Which would be great news for Indianapolis.
Chicago has their franchise quarterback in Justin Fields, so this can be an opportunity for them to trade back for assets to help build the team around him. So even if Indy couldn’t make a deal with them, maybe it is another team that does and it keeps the top quarterback out of the AFC South.
If the Colts want to not only get the guy they want but also prevent him from going to a divisional rival, then this is the scenario for them to make it happen. Maybe, former defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus (who Chris Ballard hired, not Frank Reich), feels a certain way about the team he just recently coached for and can influence his General Manager, Ryan Poles, to make a deal with them.
This is a whole “What If” dream for the Colts and their fans, but a loss to the Texans on Sunday could pave the way for them to go get the franchise quarterback of the future and keep him out of the division while they’re at it.