Since the NFL season begins tonight, I figure it’s time for my Colts prediction.
The Colts will go 10-6 and win the division.
ehhh? I should say a little more than that?
I think the Colts will stumble out of the gates early but finish strong. Indianapolis will start the season with a pair of likely division winners in Denver and Philadelphia but their schedule is very favorable on the back half. Indy will win at least one playoff game and possibly more. The AFC championship game is not beyond possibility though they would likely have to go through Denver or New England at some point to reach that game. Both are teams that they will see during the regular season beginning with Sunday night’s game at Denver. Games against Cincinnati and Baltimore will be tough but they are at home. A November 30th matchup with the Washington Redskins (yes…Redskins) will pit the top two players in the 2012 NFL draft when Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III take to the field. It remains to be seen if Griffin is healthy and/or the starter by then. A week 16 trip to Dallas is another game that could come down to whether the Colts have locked things up in the division and have home field decided by then or if the Cowboys are fighting for a playoff spot of their own. How far the Colts go in the playoffs may be determined by whether or not Indy can get home field advantage for as long as they can. But I’d lay my money on Denver or New England having that advantage should Indianapolis face either in the playoffs.
As we say in all levels of football, it is up to the men in the trenches to decide how far this team goes. If the offensive line can protect Luck and open holes for the running game at least adequately, then Luck will have a great year. Trent Richardson will have at least an 800 yard season. Not Pro Bowl level by any means, but I also don’t think it will be all his fault. The offensive line may not be able to create and maintain the running lanes very well and he’ll be forced to do a lot on his own. A healthy Ahmad Bradshaw may give the Colts a more consistent threat in goal line and short yardage situations. But as the season progresses, so should the offensive line. In much the same way the Indianapolis defenses of the Tony Dungy era looked lousy in the beginning of the season only to be outstanding by the time the playoffs came around, head coach Chuck Pagano has to hope his offensive line will only improve as the season goes along. Luck, as was the case with Peyton Manning, will thrive if Indianapolis can at least put up a respectable running attack and receive decent protection to open up the play-action playbook. Not to mention taking fewer hits during the season.
The defense will be better than expected. Especially if they can hold the fort until the return of Robert Mathis for the Baltimore game after he serves his four game suspension. ILB Jerrell Freeman will emerge as a force in the NFL this season and I believe the secondary will be tested early and often but prove themselves up to the task. The primary concern will be stopping the run. Indianapolis has historically had a better than average pass rush but has been gashed, especially between the tackles, in the running game. While I put little stock in to what happens during the preseason, the Colts number one defensive unit played well against their opponent’s number one offensive units.
Kicking duties will be solid per usual with Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri. Kick returns should be fairly decent with Daniel “Boom” Herron and Donte Moncrief returning kickoffs and Loucheiz Purifoy and Griff Whalen are penciled in as punt returners. The Colts return game hasn’t been the problem however. Special teams play on kick coverage has been an issue for a long time now. Indianapolis needs to be much better in limiting opponents in the return game. Field position is everything in the NFL and the Colts cannot afford to be allowing opponents to rip off huge returns in the kicking game.
But maybe first and foremost in relating to the Colts 2014 success will be the ability to avoid the slow starts that plagued them for a large part of the second half of last season. Indianapolis cannot afford to be down 21 points by halftime week in and week out hoping Andrew Luck will bail them out again in the 4th quarter. Luck is a fantastic quarterback, but that is a formula for disaster forcing him to throw 50 times a game hoping that his offensive line can protect him long enough that he doesn’t get flattened every play.
The Colts should have no problem winning the AFC South. Take one look at Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville and ask yourself just what does any of those three teams have that makes you think they could do better than 8-8? The AFC South is inarguably the worst division in the NFL and the Colts are arguably the best team in the division. That alone gives Indy the inside track to a playoff berth. The Colts do possess the talent to go deeper in the playoffs than a first round win. They need to improve more as a team rather than relying on Luck and luck to take them there.