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Colts Look Like Legitimate Contenders

The Colts have won three in a row and are playing perhaps the best football they've played all year. Yeah, the Colts look like they are legitimate contenders in the AFC.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It has certainly been a roller coaster of a year for the Colts, hasn't it?  It has had some really great highs - some of the highest points any NFL team has this year.  Wins over the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos, and Chiefs stand out as big highs, as well as winning the AFC South and going 6-0 in the division.  But the season has also had some terrible lows - such as the blowout losses to the Rams and Cardinals and the stretch of 6 weeks where the Colts were awful in the first halves of games.  Those were some pretty significant lows.  Overall, however, there is no doubt that the roller coaster the Colts have been on this year has been much more high than low, as an 11-5 record (6-0 against the AFC South), a division title, and a home playoff game makes for a pretty good regular season.

But the biggest high of all of them is that the season isn't over.  The regular season has ended for the Colts, and they ended it in great fashion.  But they are in the playoffs and will host a game next weekend.  For the month of November plus some, the Colts looked like nothing more than a one-and-done team, and that only because of how bad the AFC South were.  The team that looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the first seven weeks of the season looked terrible for much of the next six weeks.

In the past three weeks, however, the Colts have begun to look like they did early on in the season when we considered them Super Bowl contenders, and in fact they've looked better, but without the resume of the early stretch.

The Colts take a three game winning streak into the playoffs, having allowed only 20 points in the past three games combined and at the same time they have scored an average of 26 points per game.  The defense has been dominant and the offense has been very good and they have the Colts once again looking like legitimate contenders.

The question I have gotten most frequently in recent weeks is, "how far do you think the Colts can go in the playoffs?"  My response to that has always been the same: "they CAN go to the Super Bowl.  It just depends on which team shows up."  Of course, this was a bit of a cop out answer, as any team that makes the playoffs has a shot at the Super Bowl.  If you asked me a month ago, I would have given you the same answer but seriously doubted the Colts would get past the first round, much less to the Super Bowl.  Today, I'll tell you that they CAN get to the Super Bowl, and that it really isn't out of the question, either.

Denver?  As good as Peyton Manning is, the defense still has big question marks, and without Von Miller I have even more doubts.  New England?  Tom Brady has been great this year, but the team around him just isn't that good.  They're very tough, but beatable.  Cincinnati?  They're inconsistent and turn the ball over quite a bit.  Kansas City?  They're overrated and haven't really beaten anyone that good.  The sixth seed, whoever that ends up being?  Well, let's just say there are reasons why they're getting in at the last minute.  They're very beatable.

That's the AFC this year.  The Colts won't be the favorite to emerge out of the conference, but you'd be crazy to write them off, too.  They've come on too strong recently to be ignored.  And remember, too, the team that gets hot at the right time typically stands the best chance.  The 2005 Steelers.  The 2006 Colts.  The 2007 Giants.  The 2008 Steelers.  The 2011 Giants.  The 2012 Ravens.

The 2013 Colts?  They've gotten hot at just the right time.  And they're playing perhaps the best football they've played all year.  Take a look at the following two tables looking at the defense and then the offense this season, broken down into the three major chapters of the season:

Colts Defense Breakdown - 2013
Yards Per Play Yards Per Game 3rd Down % 4th Down % Turnovers Per Game Sacks Per Game Points Per Game
First 7 Games 5.48 350.71 34.78% (32/92) 44.49% (4/9) 1.86 3.0 18.71 (5-2 record)
Next 6 Games 6.07 397.0 46.91 (38/81) 40.0% (2/5) 1.0 1.5 30.83 (3-3 record)
Last 3 Games 4.71 292.0 24.32% (9/37) 57.14% (4/7) 2.67 4.0 6.67 (3-0 record)

Colts Offense Breakdown - 2013 Season
Yards Per Play Yards Per Game 3rd Down % 4th Down % Turnovers Per Game Sacks Per Game Points Per Game
First 7 Games 5.47 344.71 42.70% (38/89) 0.0% (0/2) 0.86 2.14 26.71 (5-2 record)
Next 6 Games 5.33 329.67 29.33% (22/75) 20.0% (1/5) 1.17 2.33 21.0 (3-3 record)
Last 3 Games 5.10 359.0 40.82% (20/49) 66.67% (2/3) 0.33 1.0 26.0 (3-0 record)

Why have the Colts suddenly began to play better in the last three games, and play better by a big margin?  Here are some of the biggest reasons:

  • They have been getting pressure. During their rough 6 game mid-season stretch, they notched only 1.5 sacks per game.  But in the last three weeks, they have recorded 4 sacks per game.  The increased pressure has resulted in the Colts pass defense looking better, the turnovers increasing, and the points scored decreasing.  It all starts with the pass rush, and it has really come on strong in the past three weeks.
  • They have been playing to the offense's strengths. The Colts have abandoned the run emphasis and have opened games in the shotgun and using the no huddle.  Luck has been throwing more and they have been using short passes and screens as runs.  They have let Luck be himself and have let him run the no huddle, which has resulted in more points and early leads.
  • The coaching staff has been more aggressive. Gone is the conservative coaching that annoyed us to death early on.  Now, the coaching staff is throwing the ball more, going for it on 4th down, mixing up the play calls, etc.  Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton in particular have grown as coaches in the last three weeks and have made lineup changes to try and help the team.
  • The team is getting back to the basics. They have improved the fundamentals and played smart football, focusing on the seemingly little things instead of the big things.  The tackling has improved, the pass rush has improved, the pass defense has improved, the offensive line is playing better, the offense isn't turning it over, and the running backs are taking what is given them.  Those are fundamental things and the Colts have gotten better at them in the last three weeks.
Those aren't the only things that have led to the Colts dominating the last three weeks of the regular season, but they are major reasons why.  The big question is whether they can carry the momentum they have gained into the playoffs.  My answer?

Of course they can.  Of course.  This team is looking like contenders yet again, and especially n a weak AFC, you'd be making them a mistake to rule them out.  I'm not saying they're my pick to make it to the Super Bowl.  But I'm saying that I wouldn't be surprised if they do.  This is a team that has reached some incredible highs and fought through some bad lows.  It's a very disciplined team that takes care of the football.  It's a team that doesn't give up and believes in themselves.  It's a team that is getting hot at the right time.  It's a team that you have to absolutely watch out for as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, arising out of the worst division in football.  They're not sexy, but they're good.  And they're playing perhaps their best football at just the right time.

"You have to believe," Chuck Pagano told his team after Sunday's win.  They absolutely do, and that's why it might be about time for us to start believing as well.