INDIANAPOLIS – When the NFL scheduled the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs for “Sunday Night Football” in April, it looked like a marquee matchup.
A rematch from last year’s AFC Divisional playoff round, it would provide a measuring stick for the Colts’ improvement from one year to the next.
Then Andrew Luck suddenly retired in August, and everything changed.
The game still will provide a measurement of progress, but now it’s 26-year-old Jacoby Brissett in the spotlight.
The 22nd start of his NFL career will be his greatest challenge. The Colts (2-2) will play without all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard (concussion) and starting safeties Malik Hooker (knee) and Clayton Geathers (concussion) against the most dangerous offense in the NFL.
As hard as general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich have worked to take as much of the burden off the quarterback’s shoulders as possible, this is a game where plays will need to be made.
Kansas City (4-0) averages 33.8 points per game this season, and in its four regular-season losses a year ago it averaged 37.5 points.
Only one team – the Los Angeles Chargers in a 29-28 win last December – has failed to score 30 points and beaten the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.
That’s the kind of performance likely to be necessary for Brissett and an Indianapolis offense that is averaging 23.5 points through the first four weeks.
A Brissett-led offense has cleared the 30-point mark just once, in a 31-28 victory against the 0-16 Cleveland Browns in 2017.
But the quarterback brushed off any pressure to light up the scoreboard this week.
“You can’t get into the game where you’re playing offense versus offense or defense versus defense, things like that,” Brissett said. “Just go out there and play football. You put your best foot forward.”
More often than not, Brissett has done just that.
At the quarter pole of the season, he’s tied (with Mahomes) for the league lead with 10 touchdown passes, and he’s the only quarterback to throw multiple scoring strikes in every game this year.
He’s completing a career-high 65.2 percent of his passes, and he’s within striking distance of the pace to record his first 4,000-yard passing season.
Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni has seen improvement in Brissett’s decision making and accuracy. He sees a quarterback who understands what the defense is trying to do and is quickly finding the holes.
He also sees a tough competitor with uncommon power in the pocket.
“He is strong,” Sirianni said. “There will be a guy that comes through the line, and he will just be able to get him off of him. It’s very Ben Roethlisberger-like where he can just get rid of a free defender or a guy who is coming free.
“He is just a strong guy that can keep his eyes downfield. (Quarterbacks coach) Marcus Brady has done a great job working with him on that. Marcus is constantly throwing bags at him, running at him where he has to step up in the pocket, look down the field and make his read while Marcus is doing all these things. So tribute to Marcus of how good he has done there.”
Brissett’s toughness will be tested in a completely different way against the Chiefs. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the loudest venues in the league, and the national spotlight will only add to the degree of difficulty.
Every game this season is a referendum of sorts for Brissett, who was thrust into the starting job two weeks before the start of the regular season but has embraced it as though this was the plan all along.
Is he the long-term answer for the Colts? Or will they need to dip into what is shaping up to be a deep quarterback pool in next year’s draft?
Sunday night won’t provide a definitive answer either way. But it will provide an illuminating data point.
Brissett has at least one supporter on the opposing sideline.
“I’m a big fan,” Kansas City head coach Andy Reid said. “I think he’s a heck of a player. I love the way he handles himself and the offense. He’s well-coached, too. He’s got a good head coach there and good coordinators. He’s in a good situation there.”
And one he plans to make the most of.
Brissett isn’t oblivious to the factors complicating this game. He knows the Chiefs are a Super Bowl contender. He knows Indianapolis needs a bounce-back performance after a surprising loss to the Oakland Raiders last week. And he knows the eyes of Colts’ fans will be squarely focused in his direction.
He just won’t allow any of that to affect his thinking once the ball is kicked off.
“You know it’s going to be loud,” Brissett said. “It’s a great place to play. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be ‘Sunday Night Football.’ (Kansas City fans are) going to be juiced, which they should be. But, as the quarterback, you go out there and you don’t try to overcomplicate it and overthink about stuff that I can’t control.”