On Sunday, December 8, 2013, the Indianapolis Colts clinched the AFC South division. Even though they lost to the Bengals in Cincinnati that day, because the Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans, the Colts officially clinched the division.
In reality, however, the division was won the previous week, when the Colts beat the Titans for the second time in three weeks. It was then that the Colts all but secured the division and a home playoff game. I said at the time that the main priority for the Colts in the final month of the regular season needed to be working on the issues (and there were MANY at that point) in an effort to try and get them fixed by the time the playoffs came around. They were already in the playoffs - that no longer was a concern. And while there was still seeding to be worked out, I said that shouldn't be the top priority for the Colts - fixing their problems should be. Many disagreed with me that it should be the focus, but consider this - the biggest problems the Colts had were that they weren't scoring points early in games, they weren't stopping teams from scoring at any time in games, and they were hovering right around a .500 record.
Honestly, what it looked like was a team that was content. The Colts had started 5-2 and had notched HUGE wins over the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos. Then they lost Reggie Wayne for the season, which must have felt to the team like getting the wind knocked out of them right when the Super Bowl really looked like a real possibility. Then the great comeback in Houston when the Colts were left for dead, and the young Colts team began playing like they were just boxing it up for the playoffs. They had mailed it in; they were content with what they had done.
But after three double-digit losses in a span of five weeks, it was also clear that things needed to change. The playoffs were locked up - the Colts would definitely host a playoff game. For a team that looked content before, that could have led to them becoming more so. But instead, they realized that all they had really accomplished was the first of three goals they had laid out at the beginning of the season: win the division, win the conference, and win the Super Bowl. The Colts had only accomplished 1 of 3 - 33%, or, in other words, an "F" on the grading scale.
A lot of coaches will take it easy when they've already locked up a playoff spot. Tony Dungy did it with the Colts, as did Jim Caldwell after him. Andy Reid did it this year with the Chiefs in the final week of the season. But Chuck Pagano took a different route. Instead of taking it easy, he laid it all on the table and determined that the Colts were going to work on their problems in the final weeks of the regular season.
The result? Three new receivers have emerged as weapons for Andrew Luck, who looks a ton more confident and is playing at a very high level right now (Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen, and LaVon Brazill). That has allowed the Colts' best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, to get more looks and on Sunday he caught a career-best 11 catches for 155 yards while topping 1,000 on the season. The offensive line allowed only 3 sacks in the final three weeks of the regular season. Trent Richardson played his best football since coming to Indianapolis. The defense has forced more turnovers and notched more sacks than before in the season and are playing their best football of the year - allowing only 6.67 points per game in the last 3 weeks. The special teams, playing without one of their best players in Sergio Brown, has continued to be great and even got help from wide receiver-turned-gunner Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Not only that, but Pagano improved as a coach, as did offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Pagano set a more aggressive approach and it resonated throughout the rest of his team. He dialed up a fake punt, he's gone for it on fourth down more frequently (in fact, the Colts have converted more fourth downs in the past three weeks than they did in the first thirteen combined). He's been a much better in-game coach. His teams have looked more prepared. He got his defense back to the basics and now the Colts are playing fundamentally sound again - which is exactly what they needed to do. He made personnel changes - in the past two months he has benched Trent Richardson, Mike McGlynn, Samson Satele, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pat Angerer. Just as significant, he stuck with other guys - notably Antoine Bethea, Bjoern Werner, and Kelvin Sheppard - and all three of those players have really come on in recent weeks after struggling mightily early on. Pep Hamilton has improved, too, and the past three games have been his best of the season. He is opening games in the shotgun and using the no huddle early and often now, which has given the offense the spark it has needed. He has gone away from the run first emphasis and has passed the ball a lot more, using screens and short passes as runs and most importantly using the pass to set up the run, whereas for the first thirteen weeks he used the run to set up the pass - and it didn't work. Now, both the passing and running game are about as effective as they have been all year. Hamilton has mixed things up and himself isn't afraid to dial up some plays, either, calling for the occasional reverse or something of the like. He has rolled Andrew Luck out, and it has worked incredibly well. The Colts' deep passing attack has returned. The Colts offense looks dangerous once again.
Thanks in part to locking up the division a month early and in part to a newfound aggressiveness and determination from Chuck Pagano, the Colts fought through their mid-season struggles and seem to have resolved many of their issues. The Colts have 15 players on injured reserve, and 7 of them started at least one game this year. The Colts had a 6 week stretch where they went 3-3 but got blown out a couple of times and were outrageously outscored in the first halves of those games. We've mentioned how there's really no team that has four huge wins like the Colts do in beating the 49ers on the road, the Seahawks and Broncos at home, and then the Chiefs on the road. But what we haven't really talked about is what the Colts overcame. 15 guys on IR. A huge mid-season slump. Whether the Colts' season ends this weekend in Indianapolis or February 2 in New York, there is no doubt that the Colts rallied behind head coach Chuck Pagano and that they are playing their best football and getting close to as healthy as they have been in a while entering the playoffs.
It was just a few weeks ago that I wrote that the Colts were playing like one of the worst teams in the league. Now, I'm writing about how they look like legitimate contenders in the AFC. And it all originated when head coach Chuck Pagano decided to lay it all on the line for the final few weeks of the regular season in an effort to improve on the team's many issues. While a little over a month ago this team looked content just sneaking into the playoffs, they don't anymore. This is a team that is hungry, and this is a team that has it's sights set on the Lombardi Trophy. Whether or not they will get there, I don't know, and the first big test will come this weekend when the Chiefs come to town. But no matter how this season ends for the Colts, there is no doubt that Chuck Pagano has his team playing their best football at just the right time.