I'll say this up front: I'm not going to be picking the Colts this Saturday.
I'm not going to pick the Colts in New England against the AFC's number two seed Patriots, with one of the greatest coaches and one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. I'm not going to pick a Colts team that trailed by 28 to the Chiefs last week and got blown out by the Rams and Cardinals during the regular season to go into New England and win. But while I won't be picking them, hear me on this ever important distinction: I'm not ruling them out.
Some in the Boston media already are, however. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe wrote Tuesday on how the "Colts won't be a challenge for the Patriots." He went on to write things such as, "Give me the Patriots over the Indianapolis Colts. Big time. Every time." Or things like:
"I mean, all they have to do is beat the Indianapolis Colts? Seriously. It's just like two years ago when all the Patriots had to do was beat an 8-8 Tim Tebow-quarterbacked team at home (45-10, thank you). Or just like last year when all they had to do was beat a Houston team (41-28, thanks) on the verge of collapse (2-14 this year)."
With all due respect, this is something of a joke."
Or that the Colts "have all the ingredients Bill Belichick loves in a playoff chump." Or things like, "On Saturday, Belichick will own Luck the way he owned Drew Bledsoe." Or things like, "Pagano will lose his football mind at the sight of Belichick and Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium. He will forget everything he ever knew about the gridiron."
Excuse me for a moment while I make plans for Saturday night - after all, there's no use watching this game anymore, is there? I mean, that's assuming they even play this game at all - why play the game if we know the Colts stand no chance? That doesn't make any sense to me.
No, the game will be played. And with all due respect to Shaughnessy, he's wrong: these Colts' aren't going to just keel over and tap out at the sight of the once mighty Patriots. And Andrew Luck? He's lightyears ahead of where Tim Tebow was as an NFL quarterback.
In their last seven postseason games, the Patriots are 3-4. They've split their last six playoff games at home, going 3-3. The only player remaining from their Super Bowl teams? Quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots have 11 players on injured reserve this year, and that was on a team that wasn't going to be dominant anyways. There's no way of telling what will happen this Saturday night, but if anyone thinks the Colts aren't even a test for the Patriots, think again. Chuck Pagano won't be intimidated by Coach Hoodie and Andrew Luck certainly won't be scared by Tom Brady.
In fact, let me tell you why the Colts can actually win.
You don't have to look any further than the Colts regular season to see more than enough reason why the Colts can win - they beat three teams with an equal or better record than the Patriots this season, and all three are generally considered better teams than the Patriots. The Colts beat the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) on the road 27-7, beat the Seattle Seahawks (13-3) at home 34-28, and beat the Denver Broncos (13-3) at home 39-33. The Colts also beat the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) 23-7 in the regular season and 45-44 in the postseason. The Colts didn't just roll over in fear before those teams, and they won't against the Patriots, either. I guarantee it.
When the Colts are playing well, they're really, really good. I don't know if I have ever seen a team that looked this good at times yet looked so bad at others. They did get blown out by the Rams and Cardinals, after all, and were down by 28 points to the Chiefs last week before coming back to win. There is no guarantee which Colts team shows up - but looking back over the Colts schedule this year shows us that they have played some of the NFL's best this year and have beaten them. A great quarterback? The Colts beat Peyton Manning. A great team? The Colts beat the Seahawks. Going on the road? The Colts beat the 49ers in San Francisco.
It's unlikely that the Colts defense - the same unit that was torched by Alex Smith last week - is going to be able to shut down Tom Brady, so the offense will have to score points. After all, the way the Colts beat Peyton Manning's Broncos was to outscore them - and the defense played well that day, even. The same will likely be true this weekend. Whereas Tim Tebow's Broncos or Matt Schaub's Texans (both of which Shaughnessy mentioned in his column) weren't built to win shootouts with the Patriots, Andrew Luck's Colts are more equipped to do so. Perhaps they're still not perfectly built to do so, but they stand a much, much better chance than the other two. Andrew Luck just lit up a good Chiefs defense for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns and put up 45 points on them. He put up 33 points on perhaps the best defense in the NFL, the Seahawks defense. He put up 27 on the 49ers defense.
The Colts bring a very talented offensive cast to New England, and it all starts with Andrew Luck. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had high praise for Luck on Tuesday in a conference call with Indianapolis media, and when asked about if anything Luck does (like a 28-point comeback) surprises him:
"No, a really complete player. Great long-ball thrower. Very accurate. Has a good touch on short, intermediate passes. Reads defenses well. Does a good job checking plays at the line of scrimmage and making some of those adjustments. Active in the pocket. Hard guy to tackle. Hard guy to bring down. Good feet. Can scramble and run. Can scramble and buy time to throw. Has good vision down the field. Makes good decisions. There's not really any weaknesses to his game."
Tom Brady also talked about Luck, saying that he has watched him since Luck's Stanford days and that:
"He's obviously off to a great start in his career. His team really thrives on his leadership. He's a great player and a great young quarterback. He obviously has all the ability. Our defense has got to be up for the challenge. There's no lead that's too safe against the Colts, as was evidenced last week against K.C."
Luck's best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, brings a unique skill-set to the table that has left most defenses unable to stop him. In the last two games combined, he has caught 24 passes for 379 yards and 2 touchdowns. He topped 1,000 yards on the season in just his second year. He's a very dangerous and fast deep threat, but he does much more than that. He gets open - whether it's deep on a go or skinny post, or whether it's an underneath route like a crossing or a screen, and everything in between (like a mid-out or a comeback), Hilton can beat you in a variety of different ways. He'll line up in the slot and he'll line up outside - the Colts will move him around.
And if the Patriots choose to double cover Hilton, talented young players like Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill, Coby Fleener, and perhaps even the veteran former Patriot Deion Branch will make plays. Taking Hilton out of the game doesn't take the Colts offense out of the game, because Andrew Luck is simply too good.
The Colts in the regular season set franchise bests and led the NFL in both fewest turnovers (14) and fewest penalties (67). In other words, they didn't beat themselves. In New England this weekend, they'll need to take some risks, no doubt. Andrew Luck might throw a pick, and that will be ok - because as long as he's not playing scared to turn the ball over, the Colts will be in the game (like they were last weekend, where even 3 interceptions didn't cause him to hold anything back). But overall, the Colts have done a great job this year at not beating themselves. That will be of utmost importance this weekend, and if the Colts do the same thing this Saturday that they did all season long - don't turn the ball over and don't commit penalties, then they absolutely stand a great chance.
The Colts hopes this weekend lie on the shoulders of Andrew Luck. And I guarantee you this - he can handle it, because like the rest of his Colts team, he is used to adversity and he and his team are used to overcoming it. The second year quarterback entered the NFL and went to the league's worst team and had to replace Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest player to ever play the game and a beloved figure in Indianapolis. The Colts were built with a bunch of roster-filler guys after being severely handicapped by the release of several cap-heavy contracts, which took up about a third of the salary cap just to players not on the team any longer. After only three games, head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia and missed much of the season while recovering. And against all odds, the Colts made the playoffs. In the playoff game against the Ravens, the Colts were without offensive coordinator (and former interim head coach) Bruce Arians, who had fallen ill that morning and was in the hospital, yet the Colts played the eventual Super Bowl champions tough and stuck with them until the fourth quarter. In the offseason, Arians left to become the head coach of the Cardinals and Pep Hamilton was hired, bringing a very different offense with him. The team brought in several new players and that continued throughout the year, as they had 17 players place on injured reserve, nine of whom started at least one game this year. During a six-game stretch mid-season, the Colts were outscored in the first halves of games by a combined score of 114-24. In last Saturday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts fell behind by 28 points in the third quarter behind Luck's second interception of the day and with a defense that couldn't stop the Chiefs at all. And through it all, the Colts stuck together, rallied, and now they will be traveling to New England this weekend to take on the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.
These Colts have overcome adversity, and they've not yet reached their goal, either. It's clear that their goal is the Super Bowl, and several players have stated as such. They're thrilled to be here, yes, but they're not content. A team content to be here doesn't rally from 28-points down. They just don't.
I'm not saying the Colts will win this weekend. As I already said, I'm taking the Patriots. But I guarantee you this: the Colts will come to play. And I sure as heck am not ruling them out. This will be a test for the Patriots and the Colts both, and it will be a competitive football game. And while Dan Shaughnessy thinks the matchup is some sort of "joke," I wouldn't be one bit surprised if it's the Colts who have the last laugh.