NFL schedules must be created by comic gremlins. How else can you explain the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers enjoying a weaker 2012 strength of schedule than last year’s 2-14 Colts? Or why the Colts play the Texans twice in the last three weeks of the season?
The 2012 Indianapolis Colts owe the scheduling gremlins a signed Andrew Luck jersey.
Going into last Sunday’s game, the Colts' nine wins came against teams with a combined 48-76 (.387) win-loss record. The Colts only quality wins came against Green Bay (10-4) and Minnesota (8-6). Playing two games against the top team in the AFC in the last three weeks of the season was a stroke of bad luck for a struggling franchise with a rookie quarterback.
At 9-4, and with a chance to win the AFC South, the Colts’ trip to Houston presented an opportunity to assess the team's real progress in 2012.
Although the Colts lost to the Texans 29-17, several characteristics of the resurgent Colts only grew more apparent.
The Colts' offensive line gave up 34 sacks prior to Sunday's game, and they gave up five more against the Texans, including three by J.J. Watt. As David Daniels points out, the O-line must be the Colts' number one priority in the offseason if management wants to protect their franchise quarterback.
The only bright spot for the big hogs up front was the 105 rushing yards on 18 carries (5.83 avg.) by rookie running back Vick Ballard. For the season, the Colts are averaging a respectable 105.1 rush yards per game.
Rookie speed has a bright future.
The offensive draft talent showed flashes of brilliance, like T.Y. Hilton’s 61-yard touchdown catch. Hilton has 716 yards on 44 catches for six touchdowns this season.
Vick Ballard had his second consecutive 100-yard rushing day, bringing his season total to 667 yards to go along with 143 receiving yards. He is on track to top 1,000 total yards from scrimmage this season.
Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are averaging over 11 yards per catch and, by all accounts, are very good run blockers.
To beat the Texans, this is the man you have to stop.
The defense ranks 24th in scoring (25.6 points per game), 21st in total defense (366.4 yards per game) and 27th in yards per play (5.9). They are giving up too many big plays and were unable to stop Foster in the fourth quarter, as he ran for 76 yards.
If not for their opponents’ late-game penalties and turnovers, the Colts could easily be 5-9 instead of 9-5.
Blocked punt results in a Texans TD
Pat McAfee had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. It wasn’t his fault, as the blocker whiffed and let Bryan Braman have a clean inside path to McAfee, whose kick hit Braman square in the facemask.
Even so, McAfee is having a good season, ranking fifth in average yards per punt (48.7 yards per punt).
Veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri is having an uncharacteristically poor season, 27th in the league in field goal percentage (77.4), a full five percentage points below his career average. He was, however, 2 for 2 against the Texans.
One suspects that the Colts will need him at some crucial point down the stretch and that the season may come down, as it often does, to a single clutch field goal.
No luck against the Texans
Rookie quarterbacks, as a rule, are little more than tackling dummies when they make it onto the field. Most teams keep their rookie quarterbacks safely on the bench to avoid injury to both the young man's body and psyche.
Andrew Luck has piled up some big numbers in passing attempts and yards, but before Sunday, he had thrown as many interceptions as TD passes, is dead last in the NFL in completion percentage and, as a result, holds a dismal QB rating of 75.5.
With numbers like that, the Colts should be playing out the season from the cellar of the AFC South instead of being one game away from a playoff spot.
The primary reason the Colts find themselves in such an enviable position is that their opponents keep shooting themselves in the foot. The Colts are first in the league in opponent’s penalty yards, many coming on key plays late in the game.
To Luck’s credit, he takes advantage of these gifts, posting a perfect 5-0 record in one possession games. Even the Texans had some key second half penalties that kept the Colts within striking distance, but they were bailed out by Arian Foster’s running.
Despite being outplayed in most aspects of the game, giving up three turnovers and having a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Colts were within one score for most of the second half. The Colts' ability to stay close even when playing poorly is a valuable intangible.
Bottom line: The Colts are probably not as good as their record indicates, but they are much improved from 2011 and control their own destiny. They need just one more win to clinch a playoff berth, something which seemed impossible before the season began.