Mostly, this is thanks to one Andrew Luck. For those of you who've been living under a rock for the last 9 weeks, Andrew Luck has not disappointed in his rookie year. A lot of people said he would be unable to live up to the pre-draft hype about him being the best prospect since Peyton Manning, and that with this team around him he'd struggle to get any kind of passing rhythm. Well if anything, the pre-draft hype undersold Luck's ability. His movement and vision is that of a 10 year veteran, his accuracy is unerring. And he's got Reggie Wayne to sling the ball to.
Sitting as they do at 5-3, two games behind Houston for the division and with the 3rd best record in the AFC, is it possible that just 1 year on from going a horrible 2-14 that the Indianapolis Colts could make the playoffs?
- The Path Behind Them
Despite a winning record, the Colts have a -32 points differential, thanks to a week 1 loss in Chicago (41-21) and a week 6 defeat in New York to the Jets (35-9). But the bad points differential is also due to the fact that none of their 5 wins have been by more than 6 points. The Colts have been doing it the hard way so far. You can argue that they've had some tricky games, after all Chicago sit at 7-1 at the moment, Green Bay have the reigning MVP. But in their other games the Colts opponents so far are a combined 28-31.
This shows itself in the advanced metrics, Football Outsiders says that the Colts defense has faced the easiest schedule in the league so far, and while they've been a fairly consistent unit, it's also dreadful: 31st against both the pass and the run. This isn't really new information, they've been getting worse and worse for the last few seasons as the old reliables like Bob Sanders and Gary Brackett have disappeared. And while they still have the pass rushers of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the offensive changes have meant teams aren't having to play catch up all the time and so can stick to the run more, use play-action and keep themselves out of the situations where Freeney & Mathis can really cut loose.
The Colts inability to stop a nose bleed has even cost them a win, allowing Cecil Shorts to split the safeties for a game-winning 80 yard catch and run after Luck had lead them to a 1 point lead with under a minute to go. The Colts defense has allowed opposing rushers 4.8 yards a carry and had just 3 takeaways all year. Against teams that are a combined 28-31 against their other opponents? That is painful.
As for the offense, they've actually been very consistent in terms of scoring, going under 15 points just once this season despite their shaky offensive line, rookie QB and the fact that they've been without leading rusher Donald Brown for a few games.
As for Luck himself? Well 3 of his 8 interceptions came in week 1 against what could be a historically good Chicago defense, outside of that he's had just 1 multi-interception game (week 6 loss at the Jets). He's on pace to throw the ball 672 times for 4,808 yards which would dwarf the rookie records set by Sam Bradford (590, 2010) and Cam Newton (4,051, 2011) respectively. His movement and feel in the pocket save him from a lot of pressure and his legs, much in the same way as Aaron Rodgers & Jay Cutler, allow him to take advantage of holes in the pocket and pick up 1st downs himself.
Overall I feel that Indy are good for their 5-3 record despite the nature of some of their wins. The blowout loss to the Jets is a little worrying as that's a bad team, even more worrying is that in that game they let Shonn Greene run all over them. But we'll allow one blip. Luck has 2 4th quarter comebacks and 4 game-winning drives to his name already, which tells you something about the nature of their wins, but also the calmness and maturity of the young man under centre.
- The Path Ahead Of Them
So far, so good for Indianapolis. But how does their second half shape up? Their upcoming opponents sit at a rather friendly 31-34, with 19 of those wins accounted for by just 3 of their opponents (Houston twice and New England).
Their upcoming Thursday night trip to the 1-7 Jaguars is looking very winnable due to the absense of Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for 160 yards and a score in their week 3 game. A visit to the 5-3 New England Patriots follows that, where newly acquired Aqib Talib will be eligible to play and the Patriots soaring offense will be pressurizing every play.
After the Patriots game comes a rather nice stretch against 3 struggling teams: home for Buffalo, away in Detroit and then home for Tennessee are all winnable. Give the Colts a 3-2 record through these games and that will put them at 8-5 going into their last 3 games, which are in Houston, in Kansas and then home against Houston.
Now it's entirely possible that the 7-1 Texans already have the division wrapped up by the week 15 game, and a bye week/home field advantage in their pocket for week 17, meaning that motivation, and importantly game time, might be lacking for the starters. Kansas are a walkover for anyone at the moment, so could they sneak a 2-1 record from the last 3 games? Sure. and 1-2 wouldn't necessarily kill them either.
- Getting In
When you look at the AFC as a whole it's a very weak year. With the Jets, Bengals and Chargers struggling, and the Colts now owning the tie breaker over the Dolphins, it looks like a 9-7 record might be enough for them to get the 2nd wildcard spot (I'm assuming one of Baltimore/Pittsburth is the 5 seed).
If Indianapolis do manage to make the playoffs it will be an amazing feat. No quarterback taken with the first overall pick has even had a winning record in their rookie year. It was far from just the QB that was the problem with the 2011 Colts, but it's clear that Curtis Painter/Dan Orlovsky to Andrew Luck is perhaps the biggest upgrade any team has made this year, his relationship with Reggie Wayne and the rest of the receiving corp is great, and the transition to a 3-4 defense for Indy has gone as well as it could have been expected to given they could only pick up spare parts after using all their 2012 draft on offense. The loss of head coach Chuck Pagano can't be understated, but it's clear that this team is playing for him and playing tough because of the preparations he made for the team in training camp, and because of the example he's setting to them in his fight against cancer.
The Colts might be two or three years away from being a well-rounded, seriously competitive team, but in 2012 they could still be a playoff team.
- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen