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5 reasons the Indianapolis Colts will make the playoffs in 2017

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Reason 1: Andrew Luck will take the next step as a reliable veteran quarterback in the NFL

When Andrew Luck joined the Colts in 2012, he joined a roster lacking in talent and a franchise undergoing significant change for the first time in over a decade in the front office and at the most important position on the football team. Despite that pressure and that challenges that faced him and the team, he started off his career with three straight playoff berths, including a run to the AFC Championship game following the 2014 season.

In his fourth and fifth season, however, he has had to play through injury and the team around him has not been able to overcome some of the failures of Ryan Grigson’s shortcomings as a General Manager. The last time the franchise failed to make the playoffs for two straight seasons was in 1997 and 1998 seasons. Manning progressed quickly and that didn't happen again.

It is only natural then, that the team’s future success depends as much on Luck’s ability to take the next step in the progression of his career as it did on Manning. Additionally, no other team in the AFC South has a quarterback that can legitimately rival Luck’s abilities on the field.

The biggest competition in Marcus Mariota and he plays for a team that has been demolished by the Colts repeatedly over their last 16 or so games and even without the track record established, Mariota has not yet proven himself enough in the NFL to really know how his story is likely to play out.

As for the Jaguars and Texans? Blake Bortles has been wildly inconsistent in the NFL, despite having the deepest and potentially most dangerous set of receiving weapons in the division. Houston has been unable to buy a quarterback and so hopes that drafting one will work out better. While it is possible that Deshaun Watson could develop into a reliable player at the position, it is highly unlikely that he is ready to duel with Luck as a rookie.

Reason 2: Offensive line continuity

The Indianapolis Colts have been playing musical chairs on the right side of the offensive line for all of Andrew Luck’s career. Free agent failures and failed draft picks have littered the team over the past five years and left the group without a solid identity and prone to miscommunication. The results have taken a tole on Luck’s young body, seeing him take more hits than any other quarterback in the NFL over a five-year span.

Last year, something may have started to work out right. In Grigson’s final year overseeing the franchise, he drafted four offensive linemen including first round pick Ryan Kelly to man the center position. His second round pick was a highly athletic tackle from Texas Tech, Le’Raven Clark, who managed to develop enough from an air raid style collegiate offense that put him at a disadvantage enter the NFL to the team’s starter for the last four games — and he looked solid. In the fifth round the team added a heady player in Joe Haeg with position flexibility.

All three of these players are the likely starters on the right side of the offensive line in 2017. All three of these players finished the season as starters in 2016. The entirety of the offensive line will be entering its second full off-season under the tutelage of offensive line coach Joe Philbin.

Frankly, looking at the tape from the final four games of the 2016 season not only shows an immediate reason to believe that this group has a chance to be greatly improved in 2017, it is even more encouraging that the problems the group did have were due primarily to backup center and left guard Jonotthan Harrison getting abused in relief of Jack Mewhort.

Reason 3: Offensive balance may be more than just a concept

With Luck likely hitting on all cylinders as an experience NFL veteran who should be 100 percent healthy for the first time in two seasons, and with the offensive line having the opportunity to establish continuity with a group of players who have shown the potential to be very good, the Colts are poised to show some of the offensive balance the team needs to take so much pressure off of Luck to force throws and make bad decisions.

Consider that the Colts should have the deepest and most dynamic running back group of Luck’s young career. Frank Gore has been a reliable presence who I believe is still a weapon in the NFL, Robert Turbin proved in 2016 to be a reliable third down and short-yardage option, and rookie Marlon Mack bring explosiveness out of the backfield that the Colts haven’t had for many years.

Add to the running backs a group of wide receivers that have multiple players who either should be prepared to take meaningful steps forward in the development of their careers like Donte Moncrief and Chester Rogers, along with a big bodied veteran receiver who should compete for snaps as well. This may be the deepest of wide receivers the Colts have had since players like Austin Collie or Brandon Stokely were filling the slot positions.

Finally, the combination of Jack Doyle and Erik Swoope should create real mismatch issues for linebackers and safeties. Doyle is a reliable player who sits down in space and presents Luck a safety valve on many of his plays. Swoope has the chance to develop from almost no football experience at all a few seasons ago, into a dangerous receiving threat who has the size and athleticism to abuse linebackers across the middle of the field.

At all levels on offense, the Colts should present a significant threat. With the line’s development leading the way, you can expect to see more balance and less pressure on Andrew Luck.

Reason 4: Look for a more opportunistic defense

One of the hallmarks of Colts defenses during the Peyton Manning era in the Dungy or Tampa-2 scheme was a “bend but don’t break” philosophy. This defensive style didn’t necessarily win the hearts and minds of fans — nor was it often good enough to lead to regular success, especially in the playoffs.

However, this defensive style did have an upside in that it allowed for a bit of an opportunistic style of play that resulted in turnovers. Much of that was also due to having Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as bookend 4-3 defensive ends but generating turnovers wasn’t typically a huge issue.

The current defensive style has the chance to be much stingier between the twenties. Rather than give ground until the opponent is in the red zone and then fill the smaller field with a swam of defenders who can make plays on the football, this style intends to snuff out receivers at the line of scrimmage and throughout their routes. It intends to make the opponent “work for every yard.”

Not only has the defense failed in its effort to be stingy, there has been a troubling lack of big plays due to turnovers. Strip sacks have dropped significantly without a reliable pass rush, opportunism in the secondary has been stifled because the coverage style pits defenders against receivers in a one-on-one style more often and frankly the players on the field haven’t been able to consistently win those battles.

After the 2017 off-season and draft, the Colts defense looks very different. Rookies in the secondary have the promise to help make things much more difficult on opposing signal callers, specifically rookie Malik Hooker whose role is designed for opportunism on the back-end. Additionally, the changes to the defensive line with the addition of Johnathan Hankins and potential healthy return of Henry Anderson and Kendall Langford should help collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks into rushed decisions.

The younger and more athletic outside linebackers brought in through free agency — Sheard and Simon — along with draft pick Tarrell Basham should work together to generate more pressure from the edges. Even at inside linebacker there are options like Sean Spence and Jon Bostic who could be superior covering the middle areas of the football field.

With all of these new toys, it will be surprising if there isn’t a higher level of opportunism on display while the defense is on the field.

Reason #5: Colts favorable schedule should lead to wins

While strength of schedule can be a bit elusive because teams make changes each off-season, there are important details about the Colts 2017 schedule that should create favorable opportunities to get rack up wins. Overall record is more important than any other record, so if the Colts take advantage of this schedule, it can hold the key to returning to the playoffs.

Week 1 - Colts face Jared Goff and a Rams team struggling to find an identity in Los Angeles. Advantage Colts.
Week 2 - Colts face an early-season test trying to stop David Johnson at home. Split.
Week 3- Colts face Brock Osweiler and the Browns at home. Advantage Colts.
Week 4 - Colts play Russell Wilson and Seattle on the road. Advantage Seattle.
Week 5 - Colts play Brian Hoyer and the 49ers at home. Advantage Colts.
Week 6 - Colts play Marcus Mariota and the Titans in Tennessee. Split. (Colts have won 11-straight and 16-of-17)
Week 7 - Colts plays Blake Bortles and the Jaguars at home. Advantage Colts.
Week 8 - Colts play Andy Dalton and the Bengals in Cincinnati. Split.
Week 9 - Colts play Deshaun Watson and the Texans in Houston. Split.
Week 10 - Colts play Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers at home. Advantage Steelers.
Week 12 - Colts play Mariota and the Titans at home. Advantage Colts.
Week 13 - Colts play Bortles and the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Advantage Colts.
Week 14 - Colts play Tyrod Taylor and the Bills in Buffalo. Advantage Colts.
Week 15 - Colts play Trevor Siemien/Paxton Lynch and the Broncos at home. Advantage Colts.
Week 16 - Colts play Joe Flacco and the Ravens in Baltimore. Split.
Week 17 - Colts play Watson and the Texans at home. Advantage Colts.

Based upon the match-ups and locations for the Colts games. I see the team having the advantage in 9 games. Only away against Seattle and home against Pittsburgh do I see as games that would be considered steals for their season record if they managed to win. Each of the split games are winnable affairs.

Based upon the history of the AFC South, 9 wins might be all that it takes to get the job done. Based upon the current schedule, 10 or 11 wins is a legitimate possibility. It also certainly helps that Goff, Osweiler/Kizer, Hoyer, Bortles twice, Watson twice, Siemien/Lynch are the quarterbacks that the Colts will face in half of their outings.