One week shy of my one-year anniversary with Stampede Blue I thought I’d revisit a story I wrote as my first ever. Last year I kicked things off with a look at the 5 reasons why the Colts would not make the playoffs. It might actually be the only time I hit 4 out of 5 predictions correctly this whole year, although like everyone else I didn’t know Luck would miss the whole season.
Today, I want to tackle the other side of that argument. So let’s take a look at the 5 reasons that this team will make the playoffs in 2018.
Andrew Luck’s Return
With so much time since we last saw Luck playing meaningful football, it is tough to truly remember how big an impact he made on the field. The 2013 comeback game against Kansas City in the playoffs will be a memory, like Manning’s comeback against the Patriots, that forever remains a staple as a Colts fan. The fumble recovery for a leaping touchdown; the dagger of a deep pass to Hilton to close out the game; they were magnificent.
With Luck’s return to health and to football, we can expect there to be some rust. However, we are no longer dealing with amateur hour on the offensive sideline. The offensive staff has a proven history of solid game planning. Frank Reich knows quarterbacks better than anyone Luck has worked with to date with the organization. I’ve been watching a lot of the Eagles offense over the last few weeks in preparation for some things that are to come, and I truly appreciate how the playcalling adapted as Carson Wentz grew as a player over the course of the season. Expect Luck to grow inside Reich’s offense as he gets back in the groove after a long absence.
The reality is that once he’s firing on all cylinders, Andrew Luck is a top 5 quarterback in the league. The return of a guy with his talent will change the way this whole team looks, because teams that have hope play differently than those without it, and Andrew Luck gives the Colts the hope that they can win every time he is on the field.
Vastly Improved Offensive Line
This one is likely to be an obvious narrative that gets repeated throughout the 2018 season. Commentators love a storyline, and the revitalization of the Colts’ offensive line because of Quenton Nelson’s brilliance seems like one that you might be likely to hear midway through the season. I hope he is brilliant and believe he will be, but it will hardly be his play alone that makes this line improved.
Because of brutal injuries, free agent misses, and whiffs in the draft, this line has been essentially fielding a 2nd string group for a long while. When you combined the injury riddled line with the lack of overall talent last season, it was just plain ugly. The only way you could make that worse? Add in an indecisive quarterback like Jacoby Brissett who was slow to grasp the offense and slower to pull the trigger on passes. Brissett held the ball far longer than he should have because he didn’t have the vision to see routes opening up.
By simply adding Andrew Luck, this offensive line will look far better because he will be more decisive in working through his progressions. The addition of Quenton Nelson means that the left side of the line should be solved, provided everyone stays healthy. On the right, there are plenty of players to be tried at both the guard and the tackle position including Austin Howard and Matt Slauson, and we’ll likely see a few combinations before training camp breaks. What is not in doubt, is that the depth hasn’t been this good on the offensive line since Peyton Manning was under center. That’s good, because the defensive talent around the division has probably never been as good either.
A lot of pressure is starting to mount for Frank Reich to live up to the gargantuan expectations that his reputation commands. This is the guy who helped guide a backup quarterback to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots. He coached Carson Wentz to an MVP level season prior to injury, and along with Doug Pederson and John DeFillipo, helped craft a highly effective and potent offense.
Despite the disaster that was the Josh McDaniels announcement, Reich handled his hiring perfectly, and although he is a boring interview, seems to have a good relationship with Andrew Luck, since Luck chose him to be the guy he called when he decided to throw a regulation football for the first time.
Reich’s play calling will likely feel like a breath of fresh air for Colts fans, who after so many seasons of watching Manning’s brilliance, had to suffer under just plain awful offensive game plans over the past several years. No more. Luck’s brain will finally be appreciated by the coaches surrounding him and the Colts will have a collaborative group who build an offensive game plan that will capitalize on their strengths. This combination of coach and player is going to be impressive, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Luck has an MVP-level season as a result of it.
AFC South Reality Check
The AFC South had two representatives in the playoffs last year, and that might lead you to believe that it could be a murderer’s row to deal with in the 2018 season. However, a look at the Titans and the Jaguars’ accomplishments leaves some legitimate questions.
While there is no doubt that the Titans improved last season and had a good showing, they only just squeaked into the playoffs. They benefitted from a very easy schedule which afforded them the ability to collect two wins against a lifeless Colts team, a win against the Browns, and one against the Texans late in the season after injuries had taken their toll. A loss in even one of those games eliminates them from the playoffs. There are plenty of other unimpressive showings by the team including losses to the Cardinals, Dolphins, and 49ers, which should temper expectations for the Titans in the coming season.
The Jaguars were more impressive. For the most part they won when they should have, with the exception of losses to the Jets, Cardinals, and 49ers. However, without having addressed their quarterback position in the offseason, it is tough to expect Bortles to repeat the same kind of relatively mistake free, if unimpressive, season that we saw from him in 2017. It is also tough to repeat the kind of defensive performance they had, and to stay healthy throughout the season.
Both teams have tough schedules this coming season. The AFC South will all face the AFC East and the NFC East. However, the Colts face the Bengals and Raiders in their other two games. The Titans will face the Chargers and Ravens in theirs. The Chargers could very well be one of the best teams in the AFC, and their matchup against the Ravens in week 6 seems like about the timeline I expect Lamar Jackson to have unseated Joe Flacco and electrified the league. The Jaguars draw the Chiefs and the Steelers for their games that differ on the schedule, and both will be tough outs. A lot went right for both these teams last season, I’m hedging my bets that things bounce the other way in 2018.
The Youth Movement
Last year this was one of the things I listed as a reason the Colts would not make the playoffs. That proved correct. However, I believe that with the right coaching staff in place and with a quarterback like Andrew Luck playing at an MVP level, having a young core of players quickly becomes an advantage.
The young defense had players last year who stepped up and showed they were nice additions to the team. Nate Hairston had an admirable season and proved a steal. Hooker played well until his injury, and even Kenny Moore II outplayed his expectations. With an influx of young players in the front seven, the potential exists for a lot of growing pains.
However, given Eberflus’ attack-oriented scheme, I think we will see some young players begin to emerge and form what will be the nucleus of a very good defense over the next few years. Rookies like Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis on the line and Darius Leonard and Skai Moore in the linebacker group will join a defense that is hungry to prove it isn’t the laughing stock it is viewed as around the league.
Additionally, this defense won’t have the pressure that the one last year had. They’ll have a quarterback and an offense that can put up points and build up leads. It isn’t easy to play hard on defense when you know you’ll be back on the field in 4 possessions anyway. This is the year I think the youth movement pays off in a big way.
All this adds up to a much more competitive Colts team than the one we saw last year. Andrew Luck covers up a lot. He covered over bad play calling for much of Pagano’s time in Indianapolis. Now he gets to come back as jacked as we’ve ever seen him and armed with a head coach who knows how to win and how to design a killer offense. It is going to be a fun year to be a Colts fan.
What do you think? Are the Colts making the playoffs in 2018?
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Playoffs!? Don’t talk about playoffs! Are you kidding me? Playoffs?