If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the NFL Playoffs over the past decade, it’s that you should almost prefer not to be the prohibitive favorite entering January. It sounds absurd, but of the last ten Super Bowl champions, only one of them–the 2003-04 New England Patriots–was the number one overall seed going into the postseason.
It’s all about peaking at the right time, and a season ago, it was the Ravens who caught fire when they needed to–Ray Lewis made his return from a triceps injury during Wild Card Weekend, just in time for Baltimore to reel off four straight victories en route to the championship. In 2011, the Giants were 7-7 prior to winning their final two regular season games and riding that momentum all the way to a Super Bowl title. A year before that, the Packers ended the regular season with back-to-back wins over the Giants and Bears, allowing them to grab the NFC’s final playoff spot and ultimately win Super Bowl XLV.
This season, as we approach the first round of the playoffs, I would contend that one team–a team that seemingly nobody is talking about–is starting to play its best football at the perfect time: the Indianapolis Colts.
After losing on the road to the Bengals in Week 14 and falling to 8-5, the Colts finished the regular season with three consecutive wins, each of which came in convincing fashion.
The first of those three wins was over the Houston Texans, who–despite entering the game with a 2-11 record–had been playing relatively competitive football in the weeks leading up to the matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium. From Week 7 until Week 14, not once were the Texans blown out, and they even went neck-and-neck for four quarters in games against the Patriots, Chiefs, Cardinals, and Colts (in Week 9).
But, when the Texans visited Indianapolis for their Week 15 meeting, they were manhandled by the Colts. Indy dominated from start to finish, winning by a final score of 25-3 and holding Houston to just 239 yard of total offense.
In Week 16, the Colts traveled to Kansas City to take on the 11-3 Chiefs, who had everything to play for in their second-to-last regular season game–namely the AFC West championship and home-field advantage, both of which were still attainable for Andy Reid’s group.
The Colts–a dome team, no less–went into the raucous Arrowhead Stadium on a cold, late-December day and had their way throughout, almost as if they were the team with the support of the league’s best home crowd. The Colts allowed an opening-drive, 31-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, and then proceeded to score 23 unanswered points to earn a 23-7 victory. They had four takeaways and zero giveaways–against the team with the NFL’s best turnover differential, I remind you–while also racking up five sacks and allowing only one. On the offensive side of the ball, Andrew Luck completed 26 of 37 passes to nine different receivers for 241 yards and one touchdown, and Donald Brown averaged 9.2 yards per touch–the fifth-year back from Connecticut had 10 carries and two receptions for 110 total yards and two scores.
The win in Kansas City was, in my opinion, the Colts’ most important of the entire season–even more important than any one of the wins over the 49ers, Seahawks, or Broncos. By the time the Colts met up with the Chiefs in Week 16, those wins were nothing but a distant memory, mostly because they came prior to Indianapolis losing its most reliable offensive weapon, Reggie Wayne.
During the seven games after Reggie’s injury and before the Chiefs game, the Colts had zero signature wins, lost three games by an average of 24 points, and were beginning to resemble a team that had suffered too many injuries to make a deep playoff run. But, after the beatdown at Arrowhead in Week 16, all of the doubts that I had regarding the Colts’ playoff potential were immediately removed. In a game that was essentially a must-win for the Chiefs if they hoped to win their division and get a first-round bye, the Colts played a near-perfect game–Andrew Luck and his offense was efficient, the defense pitched a shutout after allowing the early touchdown, and Indianapolis was whistled for four fewer penalties than Kansas City.
A week later, in the final game of the season, the Colts kept the momentum going with another commanding win, this time a 30-10 blowout at the hands of the division-rival Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars started the season 0-9, but after a Week 10 bye, they won four of seven games going into the regular season finale, and each of their three losses in that span was respectable–they fell by four points to Tennessee, by seven points to Buffalo, and by 13 points to a very good Arizona team. But, when the Jags made the trip to Indianapolis this past Sunday, the Colts quickly made them again look like the team that started the season 0-9.
The Colts jumped out to an early 17-0 lead and never looked back, thanks in large part to Luck, who nearly duplicated his numbers from the previous week in Kansas City–he went 26-of-37 for 282 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions, translating into a QBR of 77.9. 11 different players–yes, 11 of them–had at least one reception, led by T.Y. Hilton’s 155 yards receiving on 11 catches, two marks that were both career highs.
The win over Jacksonville was irrelevant in regards to the playoff picture, as the Colts would have been the AFC’s fourth seed regardless of the outcome–though they didn’t know that until well after the game’s conclusion–but it wasn’t irrelevant in the sense that it kept the team’s momentum alive and well before their rematch with the Chiefs. The Colts ended the regular season with back-to-back-to-back wins by a combined score of 78-to-20, and–as the Packers, Giants, and Ravens have proven in recent history–that could signal a deep playoff run.
Of course, momentum can only do so much–a team still has to have enough talent and ability to have success in January, regardless of any momentum factors. If the Colts can get by Kansas City today, they will either have to travel to Foxboro or Denver–where they will surely be the underdogs–but I still say this team is good enough to advance past the Divisional Round. Not only have the Colts shown time and time again this season that they can beat the league’s elite, but they are also built to win on the road in cold-weather conditions.
Remember, these aren’t the same Colts that we saw four, five years ago under Peyton Manning. I love Manning as much as anyone–in fact, I’m such a big fan that it was hard for me to even enjoy the Colts’ win against the Broncos earlier this year, and it will be even harder to root against him in the playoffs. However, the objective side of me knows that past Colts teams almost always had soft defenses–except for four games in the ’06-07 playoffs, when they won it all–and I also know that relying on Peyton’s aerial attack was often Indianapolis’s downfall in January.
This Colts team, on the other hand, is built for the playoffs. The Indianapolis defense ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed, and though Andrew Luck can beat you through the air if he has to, the Colts have the ability to run the ball right down a defense’s throat, especially now that Donald Brown is anchoring the backfield. The Colts have also excelled all season long in winning the turnover battle, perhaps the most important aspect to playoff football. They committed a league-low 14 giveaways during the regular season, with five of them coming in one game–the 38-8 loss to the Rams. So, in the other 15 games, the Colts had a combined total of just nine turnovers, something that bodes extremely well for them as they attempt to make it to MetLife Stadium on February 2.
It’s also worth noting that this team really seems to believe in itself and in its ability to reach its goal of winning Super Bowl XLVIII. If you were to talk to any player or coach in the Indianapolis locker room, I can almost guarantee that–while he wouldn’t look past a very capable Chiefs team–he would fully acknowledge that the team expects to win it all.
“We want to win a Super Bowl. Point. Blank. Period,” Robert Mathis recently told reporters. “Getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment but that’s not what we signed up for. We signed up for New York, so that’s our goal.”
And isn’t a team believing in itself all that really matters? Not many people outside of Indianapolis are picking the Colts to be the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, just like not many people thought last year’s Ravens or 2011’s Giants would win the past two championships. Still, the Ray Lewis-inspired Ravens believed in themselves, and so did the Giants in 2011. These Colts believe–legitimately believe–that they can be the last team standing.
Do I think that the Colts will Super Bowl XLVIII? Well–as you can probably tell–I certainly believe that they can do it, but will they? I don’t know. Here’s what I do know: I sure as heck wouldn’t bet against them.