The Indianapolis Colts have already dealt with plenty of speed bumps this season.
Whether it was a slow start, minor injuries to guys like Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton or controversies over in-house tension and an offensive coordinator change, the Colts have dealt with more than their fair share of issues in 2015.
But those were magnified after Sunday's potentially season-changing win over the Denver Broncos, as the team announced that Luck has a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle, via Colts.com. Along with stud defensive end Henry Anderson's season-ending ACL tear, it seems the Colts' win over the Broncos was rather costly.
Anderson was a key cog of an improving defense, but let's not bury the lede here—Andrew Luck is the story.
Luck had struggled this season and could even be named as the primary reason for the Colts' slow start. But Luck is still the heart and soul of the Colts' Super Bowl chances, and they need him not just for 2015, but for the long-term development of the team.
In fact, Luck's play, or the turnaround therein, was a primary factor in the Colts' victory over Denver. Against the league's best defense, Luck looked better than he had all season, making the right reads and accurate throws while correctly identifying and beating the blitz.
This was what the Colts had been waiting for, this Andrew Luck.
But now he's gone for two to six weeks.
Considering the circumstances, things in Indianapolis are looking a bit dicey. The Colts have already lost five games this season, and the potential to lose Luck for six more weeks would be a big blow to the team's playoff hopes. If Luck comes back to a 4-10 team in six weeks, hopes of a playoff spot would be all but lost.
Fortunately, there is room for optimism in Indianapolis.
The Colts do have a bye week in Week 10, allowing Luck an extra week to recuperate. If Luck's injury were to take the minimum of two weeks, he could potentially miss just one actual game, the team's Week 11 matchup in Atlanta.
While the Falcons looked unstoppable early in the season, the shine has worn off on head coach Dan Quinn's squad, especially with the embarrassing loss to the Blaine Gabbert-led San Francisco 49ers in Week 9.
But really, the Falcons are just the beginning. The Colts' schedule in the second half of the season projects to be much, much easier than it was in the first half. According to Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), the Colts had the sixth-most difficult schedule over the first half of the season and have the 27th-hardest projected schedule for the rest of the season.
With matchups against the Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans still on the docket, the Colts' only game against a team with an above-average DVOA in the second half is Pittsburgh.
Then, of course, there is backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck has shown himself to be one of the league's best second-string signal-callers, notably with wins over division rivals Jacksonville and Houston in Weeks 4 and 5. The Colts truly believe they can win with Hasselbeck, and with their particular schedule, it doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Head coach Chuck Pagano may have just been saying what was expected of him to Mike Wells of ESPN.com, but it's nothing you wouldn't believe:
Matt Hasselbeck will step right in again. He will do a great job, and we will win football games with Matt. Everybody is going to have to pick up their game when you lose a player, especially when you lose your starting quarterback. I got full confidence in everybody in this organization, in this building, top to bottom, coaches and players all coming together like we have many, many times to overcome. We will overcome this, and Andrew will make a full recovery. We all know that, and he’ll be back in the lineup at some point. We will overcome.
Hasselbeck has already proven he can run the Colts offense, although the opponents were poor and the numbers were mediocre for Indianapolis. But for a backup quarterback, mediocre is more than enough.
More importantly, mediocre may be enough against the AFC South.
The 2015 version of the division has been abysmal, quite possibly one of the worst divisions in NFL history.
|AFC South Standings|
|Team||Wins||Losses||Point Diff.||DVOA Rank||Future Schedule Rank|
|ESPN, Football Outsiders|
Fortunately, the team that has given the Colts the most trouble and has the most potential to snatch the division title is Tennessee, which the Colts won't see until Week 17.
Really, the Colts only have to win the division to make the playoffs, and losing Luck probably won't even hurt their potential playoff seeding. With the New England Patriots, Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals combining for just one loss on the season, it was always highly unlikely the Colts were anything but the fourth seed.
As long as they stay atop the AFC South, that hasn't changed.
So how much will it take to win the division? Don't raise your expectations too high.
Both Tennessee and Jacksonville are stuck on two wins, while Houston has won three (including two against division foes) but has the worst quarterback of the three teams and a difficult schedule. The Texans face the Bengals, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills and Patriots over the next five weeks.
As long as Hasselbeck can pull off a couple of wins in Luck's absence (versus Tampa Bay and at Jacksonville look like the two most likely), the Colts should be able to keep pace with, or even extend, their lead in the division.