NFL Indianapolis Colts: 7 Scenarios for a Super Bowl Run
The Indianapolis Colts have a challenging year ahead, and the sense of urgency to win another Super Bowl before the Peyton Manning era comes to a close could not be any more palpable. This team needs to win now, and with an all-time great like Manning still headlining their roster, the opportunity to do so is definitely still at hand.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, however, last season was a clear departure from the team's usually dominant form, and given the gains other elite teams have made in recent years, the days when a Playoff berth was all but guaranteed are clearly a thing of the past. Excelling even within their own division will be no easy feat this year, and turning Super Bowl XLVI into a home game, although certainly possible, will require impeccable play, superior effort, and likely a combination of both.
Today we'll consider seven totally plausible ways the boys in blue can make it happen.
7. Everyone Stays Healthy
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The Scenario: All the key players stay healthy all season, then come up big in the Playoffs.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because you’ve got to figure at some point this team will just have to make it a whole season with all its star players, you know, playing.
No team is immune from the injury bug, but for whatever reason Indianapolis just seems to catch it more often, in higher doses, and for longer stretches than pretty much anybody else. Last season alone, the Colts cycled through 73 players, for example, including 32 that played in less than ten games (the eventual champion Packers, another depleted team from last year, utilized 65 total players to compare, and only 25 of that group made single digit appearances), and among the big names that missed significant time were starters Bob Sanders (almost survived a whole quarter of one game this time around), Anthony Gonzalez (missed 14 games), Dallas Clark (out 10 games), Joseph Addai (eight games), and Austin Collie (seven games).
As a matter of fact, it’s a wonder this team even has a winning record over its last three seasons considering how many key players have sat out during that span, let alone a remarkable streak of success (39-15 with a Super Bowl birth), and although a spot in Super Bowl XLVI would be in no way guaranteed simply because their roster was operating at full strength, it certainly seems like a plausible outcome given how well this team has performed year after year with a rotating cast of fill-ins, backups, and scrubs.
6. Experience Pays off
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The Scenario: As other teams struggle from a lockout hangover, the consistent Colts ride their veteran leadership all the way to the big game.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because although the 2011 season will indeed take place, that doesn’t mean the lockout failed to disrupt it altogether, and with Week 1 rapidly approaching and so many teams trying to assimilate new players into their schemes, experience, synergy, and proficiency will soon be very hot commodities.
Fortunately for the Colts, they happen to possess every one of those qualities, and by returning a proven offensive lineup virtually unchanged from last season, Indy could wind up finding itself with a tremendous advantage heading into the year.
The lockout stole months of organized off-season activities from every team in the league, and without the preparation obtained in those meetings, clubs with complex offenses and ones who’ve added new players might just struggle to keep everyone on the same page come September. Even strategic mastermind Bill Belichick has admitted he’ll have to scale down his playbook this year as a result of the delay, and when you consider three of the AFC’s other five Playoff teams from last season have added new, potentially-starting wide receivers and all five of them have new offensive additions, the fact that Indy still has its same, battle-tested core fully intact definitely warrants a sense of optimism.
Whether that experience can place them in Super Bowl XLVI or not no one can say, but the notion isn’t too hard to fathom.
5. Defense Steps Up
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The Scenario: After years of being written off as an undersized pushover, the Colts’ D finally emerges as a championship-caliber asset, rather than a liability.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because the Indy defense has been so one-dimensional for so long now that any improvement against the run would likely catch opponents by surprise.
Virtually every team the Colts face builds their game plan around the run, and the ones that don’t usually lose. It’s not that hard to see why they do it, either: Indianapolis has given up over 100 rushing yards per game on average every single season over the last decade (in contrast, the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed over 100 rushing yards in just two games all last season), and it also happens to feature arguably the best defensive end tandem in the game today in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (a combined 66 sacks over the last three seasons). You do the math.
If the Colts can somehow survive a few games this year without turning some running back nobody’s heard of into a household name, then, a goal they’ve clearly emphasized by signing Jamaal Anderson (DE), Ernie Sims (LB), and Tommie Harris (DT) this off-season, it just might frustrate enough opposing offenses to propel this team to the very top.
4. Running Game Finally Clicks
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The Scenario: Tired of being ridiculed, the Indianapolis running game suddenly appears, balancing the team’s already potent offense and triggering a deep post-season run.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because the only thing opposing teams fear less than Indy’s rushing defense is its even more pathetic rushing offense, and with all the opportunities that lack of respect earns them, this could finally be the year the unit makes its presence felt.
As simple as the Colts defense has become to plan against, after all, it still can’t hold a candle to the team’s prolific offense which, albeit highly productive, is about as one-sided as a nightly cable news show. Indianapolis very nearly broke the all-time record for passing attempts last season, for example, and also led the league in passing yards, passing first downs, and completions (tied with New Orleans), while on the flip side, their rushing game was virtually nonexistent, finishing 28th in rushing attempts, 29th in rushing yards, and dead last in the league in rushing first downs. Oh yeah, plus the offense also happens to feature one of the very best passers in the game today in Peyton Manning and hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. Which aspect of their offense would you focus on preparing for?
That being the case, the Indianapolis rushing game could not be flying any lower under the radar than it is heading into this season, and if it’s somehow able to capitalize on that fortuitous position, another title shot for the Colts could easily be within reach.
3. Absolute Domination
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The Scenario: After storming through yet another regular season like clockwork, Indy carries the momentum all the way to Super Bowl XLVI.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because this team has shown so much regular season dominance that at this point you just can’t help but expect them to win.
They might be coming off their most underwhelming season in years, but the Colts, or at least the modern incarnation of them, are still the best regular season team in NFL history, period. As a matter of fact, most of the concerns surrounding them after last year only exist because we’re all so used to seeing them just cruise through the competition (they’ve had only three meaningful Week 17 games over the last eight seasons) and even though their record-setting streak of 12-win seasons finally came to an end last year after rattling off six of them in a row (no team in the league has consecutive 12-win seasons currently), they still won their division for the seventh time in eight years, they still secured their eleventh Playoff berth of the last 12 seasons, and of the six losses they suffered on the year, three of them were decided by three points or less. Even the one Playoff game they appeared in was totally winnable (they lost to the Jets by one point on a last-second field goal), so if it weren’t for the ridiculously high standards they’ve spent so many years establishing for themselves, 2010 would in no way appear the failure that it now seems looking back.
Finally, even though their regular season success hasn’t always translated into the post-season, because these guys have indeed been able to ride it to the big game twice before (as recently as 2009) and because they now have so much combined Playoff experience between them, it really wouldn’t be that surprising to see them do it just one more time.
2. Peyton Manning Carries the Team
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The Scenario: Though it takes several improbable come-from-behind wins to accomplish it, Peyton Manning compensates for his team’s shortcomings all year long and does so well enough he reaches his third Super Bowl in six years.
Why it Just Might Happen: Because Manning is used to shouldering the load for his team and because history has shown us that all-time great quarterbacks tend to thrive at this stage in their careers.
Peyton Manning will be 35 years old this season and he’s already won a Super Bowl. John Elway didn’t win his first Super Bowl until age 37 (although it was the fourth in which he appeared), then he won two in a row, Joe Montana turned 35 years old just a few months after setting a career high in passing yards during the 1990 season (just one year after winning his fourth Super Bowl at age 33), and Brett Favre, football’s modern-day Methuselah himself, just had the best statistical season of his entire career in 2009 as a 40-year-old, 19-year veteran, only months before becoming an official grandfather. Is there any doubt, then, that Manning, the most consistent producer to ever play the position (his four MVP awards are the most in league history and his 11 seasons with over 4,000 passing yards already constitute an NFL record) probably still has at least one more stellar season left in him?
Assuming he does, this could be one big year for the Colts, and assuming it is, it could very well end up right back at home in Lucas Oil Stadium come February.
1. Pure Dumb Luck
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The scenario: A bunch of crazy outcomes you never saw coming take place, and when the dust finally settles the Colts just happen to come out on top.
Why it just might happen: Because the NFL is completely unpredictable and these days any team that shows up every week can make a splash if the stars align just right.
The NFL seems to just get crazier every year. Four years ago the Patriots won 18 games in a row before losing for the first time that season. Two years ago the Colts won 14 in a row before suffering their first loss. Last year? No undefeated team remained after Week 4, the first time the league didn’t have a 4-0 team in 40 years. Go figure. And yet, is it really that surprising considering how much talent is distributed among these 32 beloved teams?
Just look at this past Super Bowl. With their victory, Green Bay became only the second sixth seed in NFL history to win it all, yet they’re also the second to accomplish the feat in just the last seven seasons alone. Or how about the Seattle Seahawks? Last season they became the first team in NFL history to win their division with a losing record (7-9), then went on to win the Playoff game their pathetic division donated them the right to play in, which happened to be against the 11-5 defending Super Bowl Champions at the time, the New Orleans Saints.
How could anyone have seen that one coming? Then there’s the Dallas Cowboys, who finished the 2007 season at 13-3 with the best record in the NFC and a record 13 Pro Bowlers evenly distributed across their roster (seven offensive, six defensive, one special teams) yet lost their first playoff game to a 10-6 wild card team they’d already beaten twice that same year (who then went on to beat the first 18-0 team in NFL history for the championship a few weeks later). Do we need to go on?
Of course not, because everybody knows by now there’s a plausible scenario out there for any team to succeed in this league, and that being the case it’s no more difficult to imagine Indianapolis pulling it off this season than it is anybody else.