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Playoff Strengths: The Indianapolis Colts leverage the field and finish drives

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly broke down the biggest strengths for each of the 12 NFL playoff teams. Included in his statistical observations is that the Colts have excelled in two important areas of a football game. They are one of the best teams in the league in starting field position, on offense and defense. They are also one of the best teams in the league at finishing drives.

From Connelly’s story:

An inefficient pass defense will likely spell doom for Indianapolis at some point pretty soon, but the Colts have developed a strong identity, and it’s why they won nine of 10 games to reach the playoffs at all.

What’s that identity? Well, like New England, it starts with an efficient passing game. The Colts are just 28th in rushing marginal efficiency, but they’re still brilliant at creating manageable third downs (in open play, they are fourth in average third-down distance and fifth in third-down success rate) because of Andrew Luck and a receiving corps that gets contributions from everywhere — receiver (T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers), tight end (Eric Ebron), and running back (Nyheim Hines).

The combination of offensive efficiency, strong run defense, and what was, per Football Outsiders, the third-best punting unit in the league, has resulted in a brilliant field position game for the Colts. And if you create shorter drives for yourself and finish your scoring opportunities well (and again, despite the poor run game, the Colts do that brilliantly), then you’re giving yourself a shot. And Indy has given itself a shot in every game since October 4.

I will point out, and I am sure Troy Russell can do a much better job, that the rushing efficiency observation doesn’t jive with our research. Troy uses Rush Success Rate (RSR) and Weighted Rush Success Rate (wRSR) to help analyze rushing efficiency for all NFL teams.

His numbers placed the Colts rushing offense at 9th in the NFL in RSR and 10th in wRSR.

Using Troy’s passing analysis, the Colts running and passing games are equally efficient and both in the top 10 in the league.

Still, Connelly makes an excellent observation about the Colts performance on special teams and the impact it has had on the outcome of games. I would be interested to see how field position impacts offensive efficiency.

Without the data, I remember quite vividly the impact field position had on the Colts 2008 wild card playoff game in San Diego. It felt like Chargers punter Mike Scifres single-handily determined the outcome. Let’s compare starting positions, shall we?

Indianapolis had offensive drives that started on their 10, 3, 7, 8, and 1 yard lines.

San Diego had drives that started on their 29, 44, 29 and on the Colts 44, 45, and 38.

The average starting position for Indianapolis was their own 15 yard line. The average starting position for the Chargers was their own 35 yard line. Three of San Diego’s scoring drives started on the Colts 44, Colts 45 and Colts 38 yard line.

There is certainly no doubt that some teams can overcome a poorer starting field position. A great special teams unit with a horrid defense won’t win many games. A great special teams unit with one of the best run defenses in the league and a pass defense that limits big plays just might.

When you add that the team also happens to be extremely efficient at sustaining and finishing drives, you begin to understand why the Colts are considered one of the more dangerous teams to enter the playoffs. This group is young and hasn’t been consistent — the Jacksonville debacle wasn’t long ago — but there are plenty of reasons to believe Indianapolis is fully capable of competing, even against the best teams in the league.