In most seasons, a team sitting at 2-5 going into Week 8 of the NFL season knows their season is over. The team knows it. The fans know it. Everyone knows it. For the Colts, this is not like most seasons.
As fellow Stampede Blue writer Chris Blystone pointed out in the AFC South Roundup, this division is kind of terrible. Like really, really bad.
The Jaguars are a shell of the team that almost went to the Super Bowl last season. They face a tough upcoming 4-game stretch where they could realistically go 1-3, which leaves them at 4-7 on the season.
The Titans are in a free fall having lost their last three games. Their losing streak could continue into a crushing seven game losing streak, putting them at 3-8.
The Texans cannot protect their QB to save themselves. They have given up 26 sacks on the season, tied for 29th in the NFL. Deshaun Watson is a special player when he’s got time but time is the one thing they aren’t giving him. Their next four games are not as difficult as the other two teams but they could still end up 2-2 in it, which leaves them at 6-5.
So why should Colts fans, with a 2-5 team, be hopeful that somehow they can turn things around and win the AFC South? Well... to be blunt, the team has already started turning things around.
First, let’s look at the offensive side of the ball. This past game against Buffalo was the second straight week the offensive line played with the same group of players including LT Anthony Castanzo. In the past two games, Luck was sacked zero times and only hit six times. When was the last time Colts QB had consecutive games without getting sacked? For the curious ones, it happened only once since Andrew Luck was drafted, in Weeks 15-16 of 2016.
To this point in the season, the Colts have given up only 10 sacks through 7 games or 1.43 sacks per game. That is good for 5th best in the NFL. If they continue at this pace, Luck will take a total of 23 sacks on the season, which would be the least amount of sacks he’s ever taken in a full season.
Chris Ballard has been about as honest and open as a GM can be. He’s said from the start that his focus was to build the interior of the lines first and work out from there. While some did not appreciate the selection of Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith early in the draft, they certainly can’t complain about the results. Yes, we know they will still complain but still.
Not only is Luck being protected, the Colts actually have a running game. You can see that Marlon Mack is making the right decisions and is a better than average starting RB. He’s playing well and defenses must respect the running game. This, of course, allows for a more effective play-action game, which gives Luck more time to throw.
The Colts offense is scoring an average of 27.0 point per game. The next closest team in the AFC South? The Texans with 22.1 points per game. The Jaguars and Titans score 16.6 and 15.1 points per game, respectively. Over the past four games, the Colts are averaging 32.3 point per game while the Texans, Jags and Titans are averaging 24.0, 14.8 and 14.3, respectively. The Colts offense is trending up and should only improve.
Second, this defense is much better than anyone anticipated. Darius Leonard looks more and more like a slam dunk pick by Ballard. He’s leading the NFL in tackles despite missing a game. The Colts are currently 4th in the NFL in sacks despite rarely blitzing. They are 6th in interceptions, 8th in forced fumbles and 5th in fumbles recovered. Did anyone expect them to be in the top 10 in each of those categories?
They are certainly young and have mental lapses. The touchdown given up in the New York Jets game is a perfect example of this. However, as they continue to gain experience, they will continue to get better. They are fast and entertaining. They force turnovers and give Andrew Luck extra opportunities.
The Colts have an 11th ranked turnover differential with a +2. This differential should actually be higher, at least a +5, since four of Luck’s eight interceptions were the result of deflected passes. On three of those four deflected interceptions, the ball was actually in the hands of a Colts receiver but they batted it into the air allowing the opposing defenders an opportunity to capitalize.
When you look at the NFL as a whole, the Colts are far and away the best 2-5 team. That’s not saying much but, realistically, this team could be 5-2.
They were driving for a game winning TD in Week 1 against Cincinnati before a fumble. In Week 3, Nelson Agholor should’ve been called out of bounds to give the Eagles 4 and 2 in FG range. The Colts should have been trying to kick a game winning FG instead of trying to score a TD on fourth down with less than two minutes remaining. Against Houston in Week 4, Jadeveon Clowney should have never had the opportunity for their initial TD and the Colts should have converted on third down prior to the Adam Vinatieri FG where the pass hit Marcus Johnson in the numbers or Chester Rogers dropped the ball on 4th down, both in overtime.
The Colts were within one score in the fourth quarter against New England on the road on a Thursday night after an emotional overtime divisional loss. That’s a tough situation to win in regardless but the team was competitive. That’s certainly better than Colts fans have seen in the past. The Colts deserved to lose against the Jets, plain and simple. They didn’t play well. However, the Colts are a 2-5 because they had a string of bad breaks. It is what it is.
At this point in the season, most teams are dealing with injuries. However, it appears the Colts are beginning to get healthier. Anthony Castanzo, who missed the first 6 weeks of the season, makes such a huge difference on the offensive line. TY Hilton, who missed the two losses to New England and the Jets is now back, and he forces defenses to be aware of him at all times. Hilton opens up opportunities for other WRs to excel. Jack Doyle was a limited participant in practice this week after missing significant time. Doyle gives Reich another wrinkle in his game plan as the tight end is an incredibly versatile player.
Malik Hooker looks fully recovered from his ACL injury, although missed practice today with an unrelated hip injury. Denico Autry and Clayton Geathers practiced for the first time in weeks. Tyquan Lewis, which everyone within the Colts organization appears very high on, practiced for the first time since being placed on IR. The Colts have three weeks to place him to the active roster or else he reverts back to IR. If Lewis is as good as advertised, Chris Ballard may have made one of the better groups of second round picks in NFL draft history.
Another reason why there’s a chance the Colts could win the AFC South? Their schedule. The Colts toughest games are behind them. Road games at the Super Bowl Champion Eagles and Super Bowl Runner-Up Patriots are in the rear-view mirror. Five of their first eight games were on the road. After this weekend, their remaining road games are all division games, and while those are never easy, they aren’t the Patriots or Eagles either.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Colts remaining strength of schedule is the easiest in the NFL. They play this weekend in Oakland (1-5), which should be a win as it appears Jon Gruden is submarining the Raiders at an unprecedented rate. Thank goodness Gruden didn’t get hired in Indianapolis.
The Colts have the bye week to get healthy and recuperate after a cross-country trip. Then they have three home games against teams that are struggling, Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4), Tennessee Titans (3-4) and Miami Dolphins (4-4). If the Colts continue to improve, they could legitimately win all of their next four games, putting them at 6-5. That would leave them tied with the Texans at the top of the division with a game against the Texans remaining.
Looking at the final five games, the Colts have two divisional road games against the Jaguars (3-4) and Houston Texans (5-3), followed by two home games against a struggling Dallas Cowboys (3-4) and what’s left of the flash sale New York Giants (1-6). The Colts end the season on the road against the Titans (3-4). The Colts only have two games against teams with winning records remaining on their schedule, Miami and Houston. That’s not particularly intimidating.
In all of their remaining games the Colts should either be favored or only a slight underdog. They could legitimately win each of their final nine games. They will likely have a hiccup here or there but even winning seven of the final nine would put the team at 9-7 on the season. That should put them squarely in the mix to win the AFC South.
Given the accelerated growth of this team and the consistency of the coaching staff, the Colts are in a very good position to go on a legitimate run. So yes, we’re saying there’s a chance for the Colts to win the division.