It had to be tough for most Colts fans to watch Peyton Manning shatter the single-season passing record books last season in another uniform, but it's hard to complain about the rapid, two-year rebuilding effort in Indianapolis.
Andrew Luck, a Pro Bowler in each of his first two NFL seasons, led Indy to an AFC South title and its first playoff victory in four years in 2013. Buoyed largely by the offset between Luck and Manning's salary, the Colts have been able to be active in the offseason each of the last three seasons, with the last two in particular designed to move this team back into Super Bowl contention.
Whether general manager Ryan Grigson has made those moves correctly is another question entirely.
After splurging a year prior on the likes of Ricky Jean-Francois, LaRon Landry and Erik Walden, Grigson again made moves that left some feeling tepid. Big contracts were doled out to former Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and former Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones, and both moves look fine in the interim but could hurt the long-term cap outlook.
The team has also been strangely inert in filling voids at safety and cornerback, even though the latter was one of free agency's deepest positions. The offensive line also stands out as a weakness.
If there's any concern about Luck over the next half-decade, it's whether he'll wind up taking too many shots in the pocket. He was sacked just 32 times last season, but tied for fourth in being hit as he was thrown and 10th in pressure percentage, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Concerns aside, there is still plenty of reason for optimism. The Colts bucked every regression model on the planet last season to finish 11-5, and their signing of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was one of the best low-risk moves of any team. Nicks will join T.Y. Hilton to create a formidable duo on the outside for Luck, and Reggie Wayne is expected back after a season-ending ACL tear in 2013.
Head coach Chuck Pagano told Greg A. Bedard of MMQB:
You have to kind of pick your poison and say okay, who do we want to stop?. You lose a bunch of guys to injuries and you go into a game with only one or two guys who are game wreckers. It’s the same thing for us we say, ‘We have to take care of this guy and that guy. They have to beat us left handed.’
With the NFL releasing its full slate of games on, we now know which teams will be tasked with stopping this new Colts offense. Here is a complete breakdown of their 2014 slate, highlighting a few games of note.
|1||Sept. 7||@ Denver Broncos||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|2||Sept. 15||Philadelphia Eagles||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Sept. 21||@ Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|4||Sept. 28||Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 5||Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 9||@ Houston Texans||8:25 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 19||Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 26||@ Pittsburgh Steelers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 3||@ New York Giants||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|11||Nov. 16||New England Patriots||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|12||Nov. 23||Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 30||Washington Redskins||1 p.m.||FOX|
|14||Dec. 7||@ Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 21||@ Dallas Cowboys||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 28||@ Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
Let's put it this way: It sure helps to be in the AFC South. By 2013 record, the Colts have not just the weakest schedule among division winners, but also the weakest schedule in all of football. It should be noted that the four members of the AFC South comprise the bottom four schedules as a whole. Terrible teams playing terrible teams will tend to do that.
Outside their own division, the AFC South is matched up against the NFC East and AFC North, neither of which engenders all that much faith. Hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers and going to Baltimore doesn't sound nearly as intimidating when cap issues leave their rosters dilapidated from their division-winning heights. The Ravens, though, are a solid positive regression candidate after nearly everything went wrong in 2013.
The meatiest part of the Colts' schedule comes via their status as division winners. They host the Patriots and head to Denver for a matchup with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Both games should be a solid litmus test for how the 2014 group stands up to its predecessor.
Otherwise, at least on-paper, the Colts look like they could challenge for a first-round bye in the AFC—thanks mostly to a lack of competition.
Jacksonville is still mired in a constant state of putridity. The Jaguars have made some interesting moves this offseason designed to make them more competitive. I expect they will be, but until they reach competency at quarterback and running back, it'll only be in a limited sense. Naming Chad Henne their starter sure as heck ain't that.
Houston is an interesting case. The Texans somehow let what was going to be a mediocre season snowball into having the No. 1 pick, putting them in position to be this year's version of the Kansas City Chiefs.
There is still a ton of talent on this roster leftover from years of division championships, and new head coach Bill O'Brien stands to be an upgrade on the sideline. Pushing for the top of the division may be a stretch, but it's not hard seeing Houston being competitive.
The Titans are the Titans. Not even a move away from Mike Munchak to Ken Whisenhunt engenders much confidence until Jake Locker can prove he's healthy. And actually good at playing quarterback. Neither of which he's done leading into this season.
Non-divisional tilts against the NFC East should at least be interesting because none of the teams stand out as overwhelmingly terrible. History tells us to expect the Colts to have a more difficult schedule than it looks in April, but odds are, Pagano will take it.
The Lombardi Trophy goes through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Colts fans know this better than anyone. Since the turn of the century, the AFC has been represented by either a Manning-led team, the Patriots, Ravens or Steelers all but twice. It's been a decade since one of those outliers made the Super Bowl.
If you come at the king(s), you best not miss. The Colts did just that last season, and it ultimately cost them their playoff berth. A week after putting together a historic comeback against the Chiefs, Brady and Belichick systematically destroyed Indianapolis in a 43-22 victory. A similar story played out in 2012, when New England scored eight touchdowns for a 59-24 romp.
Luck, however, did have success against Manning in their only meeting. With the 2013 NFL MVP turning in one of his worst games of the season, the Colts were able to sneak away with a one-touchdown win that at the time brought Indy into the ranks of the elite. The conversation wouldn't last, and Manning got the last laugh, but it'll be interesting to see what revenge he looks to enact in Denver.
Also of note: Don't discount Cincinnati's trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bengals and Colts have become something like also-rans in the AFC playoff race; they're good enough to get to the water, just not smart enough to drink it. Or something to that effect. Both have enough talent in their coffers to fancy themselves as Super Bowl contenders in 2014, but their foibles will be under the watchful eye of their fans.
How will the Colts fare in 2014?
Otherwise, again, calling any of these matchups pivotal would be a disservice. Any of the NFC East teams could theoretically win the division. Besides perpetually 8-8 Dallas, of course. But there is no telling which two will actually head into what seems like the yearly Week 17 Sunday night game for all the marbles.
Washington will be better with the addition of DeSean Jackson and others. The Giants and Cowboys have the talent to hang around the .500 mark. Philly is a bit of a wild card, with Nick Foles' progression standing to make its season sink or swim.
Taken as a whole, this is a relatively sleepy schedule that caps out at mediocre. The Colts are division favorites simply by default.
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