Is the Indianapolis Colts Offense Peaking in Time for a Super Bowl Run?

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Is the Indianapolis Colts Offense Peaking in Time for a Super Bowl Run?
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 282 yards and one touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17.

Luck's numbers for the season as a whole are impressive, but modest for a player with his talent. He finishes the regular season with 23 touchdowns, nine interceptions and 3,822 passing yards while competing close to 60 percent of his passes.

His final numbers give him an average of 1.4 touchdowns per game, 0.56 interceptions per game and 239 yards per game.

However, over the final four weeks of the season, Luck has averaged two touchdowns, 0.25 interceptions and 257 yards per game. Luck is throwing the ball 38 times per game and completing 25 of those attempts for a completion percentage of 65.8.

For the regular season as a whole, Luck averaged 35.6 attempts per game, so he's been throwing it more. However, he is not throwing it dramatically more, so the difference in output is not a result of his usage.

Instead, there are a number of factors that have allowed the Colts offense to heat up entering the postseason.

The first thing to check off the list is the quality of opposition. Beating up on bad defenses in the regular season is fine, but there won't be many bad defenses in the playoffs.

Over the last four weeks, the Colts have faced the Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars. According to Football Outsiders, those defenses rank fifth, 25th, seventh and 28th in pass defense DVOA for the season as a whole.

While those numbers are accurate, they lack context. When Luck shredded the Bengals' fifth-ranked defense, they were missing star players Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. When he was exceptionally efficient against the Chiefs' seventh-ranked pass defense, the defense was dealing with injury and performance issues with individual players that hadn't existed earlier in the season.

That would take the shine off of Luck's output somewhat, except that the Colts have been enduring turmoil of their own this year.

The loss of star receiver Reggie Wayne was never really overcome. But even before he tore his ACL against the Denver Broncos, the Colts were already missing an important piece.

Dwayne Allen may have been the second tight end the Colts took in the 2012 draft, but he had been much more effective than Coby Fleener on the field. Fleener has been productive for the Colts, but he doesn't possess the same all-around skill set as Allen.

Furthermore, when Wayne went out, Fleener, T.Y Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey were pushed into more prominent roles. None of those receivers proved to be No. 1 options immediately, so each struggled to consistently get open down the field. Heyward-Bey also notably struggled catching the football, something that has been an issue for him throughout his career.

With a depleted receiving corps, bad pass protection and no consistent running game, the Colts' season was faltering fast.

Fortunately for Chuck Pagano's side, the rest of the AFC South proved to be too inept to take advantage. That bought the Colts time to turn their offense around.

Their recent output suggests that they have turned it around, but closer examination must be done to understand if that output is a result of bad defense or improved offense.

The Jaguars and Texans don't have enough talent on defense to replicate playoff-caliber defense, so the real tests came against the Chiefs and Bengals.

Without Wayne in the lineup, the spotlight fell onto second-year receiver Hilton. As a rookie, Hilton proved to be an outstanding deep threat who could run subtle, impressive routes all over the field. He was the third option behind Wayne and Donnie Avery, but he finished the year with 50 receptions for 861 yards and seven touchdowns.

Early in his second season, Hilton struggled with his consistency. He had a few big games before Wayne went out, but four of his first seven games saw him finish with fewer than 50 total yards. Five of the remaining nine games saw him finish with fewer than 53 yards, while he racked up big yardage in one blowout loss at home to the St. Louis Rams.

All of that put Hilton on 71 receptions for 928 yards and five touchdowns entering Week 17. Against the lowly Jaguars, he added 11 receptions for 155 yards. While that bloated his numbers so that he had over 80 receptions and 1,000 yards on the season, it couldn't overshadow his two-reception, seven-yard display against the Bengals.

Hilton was targeted just five times in that game. He had two short receptions but couldn't make a clean catch at the sideline on a comeback route and the ball was tipped away from him in the end zone as his presence drew two defenders.

Without Wayne on the field, Hilton drew extra attention from Mike Zimmer's defense. That extra attention limited what he could do on the field.

When Wayne draws extra attention, he is still smart enough to come free and has developed trust with his quarterback that allows him to still produce.

Hilton was more productive against the Chiefs, but that's because the Colts schemed him open underneath on a number of occasions. He caught one big pass downfield when the Chiefs blew an assignment.

Although he has the ability to make big plays, feast on bad cornerbacks and beat good cornerbacks, Hilton still isn't refined enough and consistent enough to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver. That's not to say he won't get hot and go on a productive stretch during the playoffs, but the odds aren't in his favour.

Alongside Hilton, there is another receiver looking to create big plays in the postseason.

Rookie receiver Da'Rick Rodgers was exceptionally productive in college. However, character concerns caused him to go undrafted, and he ultimately didn't make a roster out of training camp. After failing to make the Buffalo Bills roster, the Colts signed him to the practice squad.

Rodgers was eventually brought to the active roster in November and has recently become a feature on offense.

Although he has spent time on the field, he hasn't made a massive impact since his big game in Cincinnati. Rodgers had 42 yards against the Chiefs in Week 16 and a combined 43 yards in Weeks 15 and 17. In Week 14 against the Bengals, he had six receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns. The highlight of that performance was a 69-yard score.

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Rodgers lines up in the slot on 3rd-and-4. The Bengals are moving their secondary around when the Colts snap the ball, so there is nobody covering Rodgers at the beginning of the play. This means he immediately has space to run.

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As Luck looks toward Rodgers, two Bengals defenders are scrambling to recover position. However, Rodgers still has a vast amount of room, and Luck has an easy throw to get him the football in stride.

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When Rodgers catches it, he is immediately hit by one defender. He shrugs him off as he dives at his waist before he fights through the safety's attempted tackle. From that point in the play, Rodgers is in a straight sprint to the end zone for the touchdown.

Rodgers needs to make these kinds of plays in the postseason if he is to prove valuable to the Colts. He doesn't always have to get to the end zone, but big plays from easy throws are massively important for an offense that can't rely on its offensive line or its receivers to consistently come open and catch the ball.

As we have learned in recent seasons, the playoffs aren't about being the best for the whole season. They are about being the best at the right time.

Much like Joe Flacco and Eli Manning in recent years, all Luck needs to do is get hot at the right time.

Of course, it is much more difficult for Luck to do that because of his supporting cast. Flacco had excellent pass protection last year during his playoff run, while Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones consistently made big plays for him. Eli Manning's offensive line asked a huge amount of him during his Super Bowl victories, but his receivers were generally very effective.

Luck has all the talent to be an elite quarterback, but to this point in his career he has been too inconsistent. Much of that inconsistency can be put on his situation. That likely prevents this offense from sustaining a high level of production throughout the playoffs.

In spite of their successful regular season, at least in terms of winning the division, the Colts don't appear set to peak at the right time and shock the AFC.

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