The Indianapolis Colts may have entered the season as playoff contenders, but that team and the team presently sitting at 7-3 and in first place in the AFC South are two very different squads.
Entering 2013, it was all about wide receiver Reggie Wayne and quarterback Andrew Luck. It became evident during Thursday's 30-27 win over the Tennessee Titans that if the Colts are going to make a deep playoff run this season, it's going to be about tight end Coby Fleener and running back Donald Brown.
This game was a tale of two very different halves. In the first half, the Colts offense was a mess. The running game was nonexistent, and the only thing working in the passing game was dump-offs to Trent Richardson. The Colts trailed 17-6 at the break.
At this point, let's be real about Richardson. Since the Colts acquired the second-year pro in a trade with the Cleveland Browns earlier this year, Richardson has been somewhere between average and awful. In Week 11 against Tennessee, Richardson picked up all of 22 yards on eight carries. It's the fourth straight game in which Richardson has gained fewer than three yards a carry.
In the second half, however, the Colts turned to Donald Brown on the ground. The 26-year-old responded in a big way, gaining 80 yards on 14 carries. Brown also scored a pair of touchdowns.
Brown's running helped to open up the passing game a bit, and Luck got things going through the air by looking to a familiar face from his Stanford days.
Coby Fleener, who has been a relative disappointment since entering the NFL alongside Luck last year, had the most productive game of his NFL career in the win over the Titans, setting career bests in both catches and yardage.
The Colts need to stick with that recipe.
The season-ending injury suffered by wide receiver Reggie Wayne in the win over Denver a few weeks ago had a devastating effect on the offense. A huge game from T.Y. Hilton got the Colts past the Houston Texans in Week 9, but in last week's debacle against the St. Louis Rams and the first half against Tennessee, the offense was a disjointed mess.
The reason? The Colts couldn't run the ball, and there isn't a reliable target over the middle in the passing game since Wayne got hurt.
That's where Brown and Fleener come in.
Yes, the Colts gave up a first-round pick to get Richardson. The Colts need to come to the same realization the Browns did: investing a first-round pick in Richardson was a mistake.
Brown hasn't just outperformed Richardson on a per-touch basis. It hasn't been close, and the difference in play between the two backs was glaring against Tennessee.
Week 11 at TEN
The Colts also need to keep Fleener involved in the passing game. Fleener drew 10 targets in the passing game for the second straight week, and this time the youngster made the most of them.
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The Colts need some semblance of a running game to open up the intermediate passing game. That intermediate passing game, in turn, opens things up vertically for T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
If the Colts are going to end the 2013 season playing in New York, head coach Chuck Pagano needs to apply the lessons learned Thursday night and keep Brown and Fleener heavily involved in the offense.
After all, who gets you to the Super Bowl is secondary, so long as you get there.