With the 2013 regular season now complete, the Indianapolis Colts can look back with relative contentment. Although there were very rough patches at times, the Colts finished at 11-5 and at the top of the AFC South, the upper limits of their preseason projections.
Now, the Colts look ahead to a Wild Card Game Saturday, when they'll host the Kansas City Chiefs at Lucas Oil Stadium. While the 11-5 record is the same as last season, and they're once again playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Colts are in a much better position to make a run this year, although nothing is set in stone. Quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts have improved noticeably this season, even if some front office moves weren't the most efficient.
So how did the Colts get to this point? Join us as we take a look back at the Colts' season, reflecting on the biggest moments of the 2013 regular season and how they affected Indianapolis in their hunt for a division title.
After going 1-1 in the first two weeks and losing starting running back Vick Ballard for the season with a knee injury, the Colts shocked the world by trading a first-round pick for then-Cleveland running back Trent Richardson.
Richardson was the Browns' first pick in 2012, the third player taken overall, but had struggled in Cleveland. With Ballard out, the Colts went after Richardson in hopes of still having a dynamic running back committee.
The move itself was significant in many ways.
First, it was an example of the far-reaching effects that injuries had on the Colts this season. Without Ballard's injury, Richardson and the mess that followed never would have arrived in Indianapolis.
Second, it was a sign that the Colts absolutely believed the "run the ball, stop the run" mantra that they had preached. It no longer was just coach-speak, but the Colts felt so strongly about the power-running schemes that they would give up a first-round pick for a running back.
That led to the force-feeding of Richardson, who became the first back in Colts history to rush for 2.9 yards per carry and still receive over 150 carries. The Colts stubbornly kept with their run-first mentality for most of the season, which held them back and created offensive inconsistencies throughout the season.
By the final few weeks of the season, however, it seemed that the Indianapolis coaches had learned their lesson. Donald Brown had taken over starting responsibilities at running back and the Colts began to spread the field and rely on Andrew Luck a bit more, leading to four straight games of 23-plus points and double-digit wins.
The second defining moment came when the Colts defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5, moving to 4-1 on the season and establishing themselves as a serious Super Bowl contender. The Colts had beat the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks earlier, but handing the Seahawks their first loss of the season was the win that really shot the Colts into the national spotlight.
Andrew Luck was particularly good in that matchup, outplaying Russell Wilson and connecting with T.Y. Hilton to burn the "Legion of Boom" on multiple occasions. Brown scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter as the Colts and Luck earned the fourth-quarter comeback, and the Colts finished with 34 points against the vaunted Seattle defense (27 offensive points).
Forced to spread out with an injury to Stanley Havili, the Colts showed versatility in their offense that gave hope for the rest of the season, although it would contribute to frustration later in the season as Havili and the power-run formations continued to be a staple.
But with the Colts defense corralling Wilson and the Colts offense putting together key drives in the second half, Indianapolis had beaten one of the league's most well-rounded teams.
After defeating the Seahawks in Week 5, the Colts lost to the San Diego Chargers in a 19-9 game that felt more one-sided than the final score. The offense couldn't put anything together after besting the Seattle defense the week before, despite playing a very weak San Diego defense. The defense kept the Chargers out of the end zone for most of the night, but had troubles getting off the field on third down and allowed too many long drives.
The inconsistent performance brought doubt back to Indianapolis, and just in time for the most anticipated Colts game since the 2009 Super Bowl. Peyton Manning was returning to town.
With a new team and a perfect 6-0 record, Manning had gotten off to one of the best starts in NFL history, and, fair or not, some of that was making the Colts' decision to let Manning go in 2012 look and feel like a big mistake. With Manning returning home, it was a big test to Hoosiers' loyalties.
While there was an absolute reverence and respect for Manning in Lucas Oil Stadium that Sunday night in Week 7, Colts fans were clear in their support for Luck and the new Colts. It didn't hurt that the Colts came out and played as well as possible, with Robert Mathis and Vontae Davis each having stellar games that allowed the Colts to ride early offensive success to a 39-33 victory.
Meanwhile, Luck stood calm in the midst of the storm, both on and off the field. The pregame circus that surrounded the game (due largely to Jim Irsay's ill-timed comments about Manning and his "Star Wars" numbers) didn't get under Luck's skin, and the second-year quarterback finished 21-of-38 for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Luck also kept control of the ball, besting Manning zero to two in the turnover count.
It was a sign that Luck would be able to be his own player in the shadow of Manning, a comforting and relieving sign for Colts fans and Jim Irsay going forward. Unfortunately, a late knee injury to Reggie Wayne would also be a signa sign (and a catalyst) of struggles to come.
Sure, the Colts were now contenders, but the injury to Wayne knocked the Colts off the rails for a bit, as they entered the second half of the season with major inconsistencies. The Colts struggled majorly in the first half of each of their next four games, and while Luck, Hilton and Brown were able to bring the Colts back in their games in Tennessee and Houston, blowout losses to Arizona and St. Louis were enough to take the Colts' national attention and flip it around.
The most concerning game was the aforementioned loss to the Rams. While the Colts had to travel to Arizona to take on a feisty Cardinals team, the St. Louis loss came at home to a team forced to play Kellen Clemens at starting quarterback. It was a complete offensive, defensive and special teams collapse in both games, and it created serious doubts in people's minds whether the Colts were going to be a real contender come January.
Luck and the offense had struggled to find any kind of consistency without Wayne. If it wasn't big plays by Hilton and Brown, the offense was fairly stagnant. This was, in large part, also the fault of Pep Hamilton and Chuck Pagano, who continued to push forward with the power-run focus, despite its clear failures. On the other side, the defense was a mess, allowing backup quarterbacks like Clemens, Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick to put up big numbers.
But these losses forced the Colts to look in the mirror, and the players held a players-only meeting after the embarrassing losses, according to Mike Wells of ESPN.com. The meeting, led by veterans like Mathis, Wayne, Adam Vinatieri and Cory Redding, would kick-start the final leg of the season, a leg that would see the Colts get back into a groove just in time for the playoffs.
The Colts played well throughout the final five weeks of the season, going 4-1 in that time and outscoring their opponents 128-76. But their most impressive win was a trip to Kansas City, where they defeated the Chiefs, a respected AFC contender, 23-7 in Week 16.
An impressive, if a bit overrated, Kansas City defense was no match for a spread out Colts offense, who put up 23 points in three quarters and looked as good as ever. On the other side, the defense had it's second straight impressive performance, completely shutting down Alex Smith and limiting Jamaal Charles enough to take home the victory.
The win vaulted the Colts back into contention, as analysts took note of the Colts' improved offensive and defensive play as the season wound down. A blowout win over Jacksonville in Week 17 would cement the theory, and make the Colts as dangerous as any AFC team in the playoffs. With a favorable matchup with the Chiefs facing them once more, Indianapolis is looking forward to the playoffs more than they have since the 2009 Super Bowl run.