Only one team can advance from the AFC, and the Colts fell to that team in the wild card round this season.
The 2012 Colts were not Super Bowl contenders.
It's been said over and over again, but the Indianapolis Colts are still rebuilding. Yes, the team made the playoffs, but they never were a serious threat to contend for the championship, and most analysts saw it that way.
Quite frankly, the Colts simply had too many holes, on both sides of the ball, to be able to string together four wins against high-quality opponents.
That being said, the 2012 Colts showed incredible promise, with young players stepping up all season to propel the team to six or seven wins more than most predicted. If they build off that promise, they certainly should be in contention in coming years. Even in 2013, with a productive offseason, the Colts have a very good chance to be in contention.
So what exactly has to happen for this young team to make a run?
It's a combination of acquiring new pieces, building on old ones and getting a little lucky.
Pat McAfee is the only must-sign, due to his community work and on-field performance.
The first big step in the in preparing for the 2013 season is the re-signing of the Indianapolis free agents. You can find a list of those players here.
The only must-sign of those free agents is punter Pat McAfee. McAfee is a fan favorite, a very good punter and wants to stay in Indianapolis. A strong punter can be an underrated weapon in the NFL, and McAfee was one of the top punters in 2012 with his best season as a pro. In a year where the Colts are not losing much via free agency, McAfee is one that they should not let get away.
Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn combined to play over 1000 snaps this season, and are not long-term answers at cornerback. But, with the Colts' depth running thin in the defensive secondary, the team likely will re-sign one of the two. Personally, I'm advocating for Butler.
Another free agent who presents a conundrum is cornerback Jerraud Powers. The four-year veteran from Auburn is a solid second (or great third) corner when healthy, but he's been laden with injuries, never playing in more than 12 games in one season. The Colts need depth, however, in the defensive secondary, and Powers provides that, at the very least. But, if someone else decides to give him starter-level money, he's probably not worth it.
There are several other players that can be re-signed, but only as depth or rotational players. The top ones would be Moise Fokou, Winston Justice, A.J. Edds, Fili Moala, Antonio Johnson and Jeff Linkenbach.
Jarius Byrd is one of the few big dollar free agents the Colts should not shy away from.
The Colts reportedly have up to $46 million in cap space this offseason, which, even after re-signing players and allowing for rookie contracts, should leave a chunk of change to work with in free agency. With the abundance of holes on this roster, there are plenty of options.
Safety, offensive line, defensive line, wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback are the main areas of need as of now, with depth always an issue as well.
The Colts need to use the money to find quality players who will be around for the long haul, not quick fixes on overpaid contracts. Here are a few names that could fit in that context:
Jarius Byrd (BUF), William Moore (ATL), Chris Clemons (MIA)
G Andy Levitre (BUF), G Louis Vasquez (SD), T Sebastian Vollmer (NE), T Will Beatty (NYG)
DE Mike Devito (NYJ), DE Arthur Jones (BAL), DE Desmond Bryant (OAK)
Dwayne Bowe (KC), Brian Hartline (MIA), Danny Amendola (STL)
Anthony Spencer (DAL), Paul Kruger (BAL), Junior Galette (NO)
Cary Williams (BAL), Chris Houston (DET), E.J. Biggers (TB)
These players vary in contract size, as well as ability, and some may not even be available once free agency kicks off. That being said, each of these players would be helpful on this roster.
Desmond Trufant (6) could be a first round target of the Colts.
The Colts don't have the luxury they had last year, with the first (or second) pick in each round. With just one pick in the 75, the Colts need to capitalize on their picks, especially those in the early rounds. Anybody picked in the first three or four rounds needs to be a player that can step in and contribute, or possibly start, very quickly.
As with free agency, the biggest areas of need are going to be wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback and safety. After free agency, some of those holes may be filled, which would certainly affect the draft strategy. While best player available (BPA) is a sound strategy, there must be some direction to it.
There will be more speculation as the draft gets closer, but for now, check out this comprehensive list of possible first-round picks for the Colts.
Pep Hamilton brings an offense that can hopefully be a little more efficient in 2013.
With former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians now coaching the Arizona Cardinals, the Colts hired Stanford University's director of offense, Pep Hamilton, to lead the Colts' offensive unit in 2013.
They could not have made a better choice.
Hamilton represents familiarity within the group, having coached QB Andrew Luck, TE Coby Fleener and WR Griff Whalen over the past few years.
The new West Coast "hybrid" system should benefit the team's two young tight ends, Fleener and Dwayne Allen, as well as speedy young wide receivers like T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, who fans will see getting the ball in open space more often.
The one thing that remains to be seen is what will happen with the run game. Hamilton's offenses at Stanford were power running between the tackles, but the Colts have neither the linemen nor the backs to run a successful system for long.
But the familiarity should do some good, hopefully in improved efficiency in the red zone. Despite gaining the fourth-most yards per drive in 2012, the Colts were just 18th in points per drive.
Ricardo Mathews (91) and Drake Nevis (94) should only get better as they get familiar with the 3-4.
I could be talking about the jump that Andrew Luck hopefully takes, or even the jumps of Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard or the other 2012 rookies.
But I'm talking about something different entirely: team jumps.
2013 will be the second year of the Pagano era, which brings with it the second year of the 3-4 in Indianapolis. The defense was awful in 2012, and doesn't have much room to move except up. As the Colts acquire a few more pieces to the 3-4 puzzle, players get more comfortable in the scheme and biggest culprits are let go, the defense should improve mightily.
Health will be important as well, as the Colts' top three defensive ends and backup nose tackles all struggled with injuries this season, with four of the top six defensive linemen landing on the injured reserve by the end of the season.
The Texans will try to hold the Colts down in 2013, but can they hold on to their second straight division title?
The regular season is all about winning the games you are supposed to. In order to make the playoffs, the Colts really just have to win the games that they are supposed to.
This team is one that should be able to pull off any win, it's all a possibility. If the Colts can win the games they are supposed to, they'll make the playoffs. If they pull off a couple big wins, especially against Houston, they may even bring the divisional crown back to Indianapolis.
The ball bounced the wrong way the last time the Colts were in the Super Bowl.
As we've seen time and time again, a single-elimination tournament to end the season does not determine the best team in the NFL.
It determines the luckiest.
Now, that's not to take anything away from the Super Bowl winners each year. Each one deserves it, works hard for it and should be proud of it.
But, the most important value in that tournament is luck. Think of this year's teams. Baltimore should have been dead to rights in the divisional game, but a terrible play by Rahim Moore led to overtime, and now a chance at a championship. The little things lead to a title, and the Colts need those little things to happen for this young team to make a run in 2013.