I guess it is now a tradition that I make a "bold" prediction as our Colts go into the playoffs. This is my third season covering Indy for SB Nation, and in the two previous seasons, I made "bold" predictions about how the playoffs would shake out. In the 2006 season, I was nearly dead on. I said the Colts would defeat the Chiefs, then the Ravens, and then finally the Patriots (who were the #4 seed). I then said the Colts would face the Saints in the Super Bowl, but the Saints were beaten in the NFC Championship Game by the Bears. So, with 2006 I guessed right on the AFC playoffs, but missed on the NFC. Of course, I'm not upset or anything. The Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl 41.
In the 2007 season, my playoff predictions were as bad as they were naive. I said the following:
The Colts will beat the Chargers, and beat them badly. They will then beat everyone else they will face in the playoffs and win their second Super Bowl in a row.
As you all know, the Chargers came into the RCA Dome and won a thriller over the Colts 28-24. The Colts came out red hot in that game. Then, because Indy was unable to mount a consistent pass rush because Dwight Freeney was out and both Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock were extremely hobbled, the Chargers fought back in the game and pulled out the win. Indy's old nemesis, Michael Turner, and the former back-up QB for the Tennessee Titans (Billy Volek) helped the Chargers win the game in the 4th quarter. That year, I also said the Colts would face the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, but like the Colts they too were tripped up by a team from the Wild Card round (the Giants).
So yeah, my 2007 playoff predictions, bold and arrogantly defiant, were about as wrong as one cane get.
This season, unlike the past two, I come into these playoffs as a fan who feels he has been through the ringer. After the Colts starting 3-4 and then fighting back to finish the season winning 9 straight, I feel as though any chance to see my guys in the playoffs in a mini-blessing. In years past, I've been nervous come playoff time. I get antsy, restless, and start chewing off all my finger nails. Sometimes, I get so nervous I intentionally miss the first 15 minutes of the game, because all the pre-game hoopla makes me want to jump out my window and climb on the walls.
This year, I don't feel those nerves.
I don't know what it is, but I just don't feel nervous or jittery. All season long, I've seen these Colts players and coaches claw, kick, bite, and scrape their way to win after win after win. Whether down big in the late 4th quarter on the road or driving late to get Adam Vinatieri in game-winning FG range, this team has just found ways to claw out victories. Maybe all those close games shook the nervous jitters out of me, and I simply have no emotion left to feel nervous. Or, maybe I just feel a very quiet, very serene confidence in my team. I just feel that, no matter what, they will get it done.
Now, unlike last year, I'm not going to bash or belittle the opponents. In the playoffs, everyone is good. This year, the San Diego Chargers are 8-8, but they might be even more dangerous than last year. This is a team (like the Colts) that was counted out and left for dead. Now, here they are hosting a playoff game. It is a shame the Chargers and Colts have to play each other in the Wild Card round. These two teams are the most dangerous in the AFC. When I say "dangerous" I mean that their seeding and their records are deceiving. Both teams dealt with injuries and adversity all season. They played tough schedules and lost several key games by close margins (the Chargers, especially). This means people should not dismiss them because one is 8-8 and the other is the 5th seed.
In the playoffs, your regular season records don't matter. What you did in the 2008 regular season is long forgotten. In the playoffs, the healthy teams that know how to win the tough games are the most dangerous, and right now both the Chargers and Colts are healthy, experienced, and very, very dangerous.
All that said, I guess it is time to make some "bold" predictions. The Chargers and Colts are very evenly matched, which is why it is a shame the game is one of the first in the playoffs. But, unlike last season's playoff game in the RCA Dome, the Colts are healthy going into this game in San Diego. In fact, they are as healthy as they've been all season. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Raheem Brock, and Bob Sanders are all healthy. Joseph Addai looks refreshed, and if you have seen Dominic Rhodes in recent press conferences, the guy looks like he's about to jump out of his skin.
He also looks like Grizzly Adams with that stoner's beard he's growing.
Players like Freeney and Rhodes (who did not play in last year's contest) are invaluable if a team is to beat an opponent like the Chargers. Like Peyton Manning, having Freeney, Rhodes, and Mathis healthy is a big X factor for the Colts. Because these players are available and healthy, the Colts will defeat the Chargers in San Diego is a close, well-played game on both sides. The Colts will then travel to Nashville, TN to take on the Titans. This means that the Dolphins will defeat the favored Ravens, and advance to play the Steelers. The Colts will play the Titans, a team they have been chasing all season, and the Colts will beat them. After dispatching a tough division rival, the Colts will face an unlikely team in the AFC Championship Game, the Miami Dolphins.
I know some of you might think that the Steelers will play in the AFC Championship Game, and they may. But, the point of this is to be bold. I think the Dolphins will play sound, tough football and attack the Steelers' offensive line. The game will be tough and physical, but in the end the Dolphins will come out on top. They will then host the Colts in Miami for the AFCCG. This game will be unique because for the first 1/3 of Peyton Manning's career, it was the Dolphins that were his nemesis, not the Patriots. There was also the old joke that Peyton couldn't win in Florida because during his college days, Peyton's school (Tennessee Volunteers) never beat Steve Spurrier's Flordia Gators. This joke was carried into the NFL, as Peyton and the Colts struggled to beat the Dolphins when they played in the AFC East together. In the playoffs back then, the Colts lost a tough game in overtime to the Dolphins back in 2000. This loss took the old Peyton can't win in Florida joke to new heights, but the joke was shot down when Peyton and the Colts won Super Bowl 41 in Miami, Florida in the middle of a monsoon. This time, the Colts will play the AFC Championship Game in Miami, and they will beat the Dolphins.
After defeating the Dolphins, the Colts will then get matched up against the NFC Champion, and that NFC Champion will be the Carolina Panthers. Yes, I know many want the so-called "Manning Bowl" between Peyton's Colts and Eli's Giants, but to make that prediction is not a "bold" one. And while much of this post is wishful, homerific thinking, having a Colts v. Giants Super Bowl almost 50 years after The Greatest Game Ever Played sounds like a beautiful dream come true. But, saying it is not making a bold prediction. For me, the Panthers will emerge from the NFC gauntlet.
Both Peyton Manning and Jake Delhomme are Louisiana legends. Steve Smith often calls Marvin Harrison his inspriation. The Super Bowl will pit two unlikely but very strong teams against each other, and it should reflect what the 2008 regular season was: One wild ride.
So, there you have it. These predictions are not made based on stats or looking at match-ups. This is just me making more silly predictions based on... well, based on nothing but me acting like a Colts homer and guessing blindly in the dark. The one guess I feel very good about is that if the Colts can get past a very tough and talented Chargers team this Saturday, I don't think anyone else they face will stop them. If they get past the Chargers, they will win out. But, beating the Chargers (or anyone else in this crowded field of great teams) will not be an easy task.
But, I think these Colts are up to it. They've given us fans a wild and enjoyable regular season, and the playoffs now feel like dessert after a very fine, well-cooked meal. Whatever happens, I'm very proud of this team and how they have played, and I know they will play with the same passion and determination that defines them as Indianapolis Colts.