The Indianapolis Colts have endured two consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs for the first time since the late 1990s. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck and Co. will attempt to end that brief drought in 2017, and they have a favorable schedule to bolster their postseason hopes.
Luck led the NFL's eighth-ranked scoring offense last season, but the Colts ranked 30th in total defense. So it came as no surprise when new general manager Chris Ballard spent most of the offseason upgrading that side of the ball, led by the additions of Jabaal Sheard, John Simon and Margus Hunt.
Even moderate improvement defensively should leave the Colts in prime position to earn a playoff berth following two straight 8-8 campaigns. Let's check out the schedule that lies ahead (via NFL.com) and analyze Indy's outlook heading into the 2017 season.
|2017 Indianapolis Colts Season: Schedule and TV Info|
|1||Sunday, Sept. 10||at Los Angeles Rams||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sunday, Sept. 17||vs. Arizona Cardinals||1 p.m.||Fox|
|3||Sunday, Sept. 24||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|4||Sunday, Oct. 1||at Seattle Seahawks||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|5||Sunday, Oct. 8||vs. San Francisco 49ers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|6||Monday, Oct. 16||at Tennessee Titans||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7||Sunday, Oct. 22||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Sunday, Oct. 29||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Sunday, Nov. 5||at Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Sunday, Nov. 12||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Sunday, Nov 26||vs. Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Sunday, Dec. 3||at Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Sunday, Dec. 10||at Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Thursday, Dec. 14||vs. Denver Broncos||8:25 p.m.||NBC/NFL Network|
|16||Saturday, Dec. 23||at Baltimore Ravens||4:30 p.m.||NFL Network|
|17||Sunday, Dec. 31||vs. Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
A quick glance at the schedule suggests the Colts are in great shape. There's no reason they should go any worse than 6-2 at home, which means a mere 4-4 record on the road would put them on pace to likely earn a playoff spot, and that's a reasonable expectation. They should do even better.
Of course, all of those estimates are based on a 16-game season from Luck. Any type of significant absence from him would completely change the outlook.
The numbers back up it being a navigable slate for Indianapolis, too.
John Breech of CBSSports.com noted the Colts own the easiest schedule in the entire league for 2017 based on each team's record from 2016. Their opponents had a combined .424 winning percentage last year.
It's not a perfect predictor because some teams will get better. The Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals figure to post tougher tests than their 2016 record would suggest. But it's still a schedule that leaves no excuses if Indy falls short.
While getting back to the playoffs is the Colts' main goal, at least one writer has even bigger expectations for the squad during the upcoming campaign. In February, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com predicted they will face the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl LII: "[Minnesota's] opponent is the [Colts], who win a 41-38 thriller after Andrew Luck throws a go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 left and Sam Bradford checks it down to a running back with time expiring at the Colts' 15-yard line. Two months later, Bradford signs with the Texans. Circle of life."
Ultimately, an Indianapolis triumph in the Super Bowl isn't out of the realm of possibility. An MVP-type season from Luck, consistency from the ground game and getting the defense into the middle of the pack would leave them squarely in the contender category.
The two biggest games for the Colts are undoubtedly the clashes with the division-rival Houston Texans. Although it's possible both teams could end up in the postseason, there's an equal chance they may end up fighting for the AFC South's only playoff bid.
OddsShark notes the oddsmakers slightly favor Indianapolis. The Texans are tied for the eighth-best odds to win the AFC title, while the Colts are tied for sixth. The difference is slim, but the narrow margin of error could be the difference between a Super Bowl run and missing the playoffs again.
Those two games are also where Luck figures to get tested most. The quarterback had a 77.7 passer rating against the Texans' second-ranked passing defense last season, which is almost 20 points worse than his overall mark in 2016 (96.4).
Mike Wells of ESPN.com passed along comments from the 27-year-old Stanford product in January about trying to find more team success in 2017 after a bounce-back year on a personal level last season:
It's odd. It's disappointing. First, disappointed in myself. I feel like I could have done better and maybe have helped this team end with a different record, but the reality is we didn't. Winning was important though. It's hard to verbalize why it's important, but it is. Close the chapter on this season, this year of the Colts and hopefully we can start a new one in better fashion.
Indianapolis lost both games against Houston last season and proceeded to finish one game back in the division race. Earning at least a split would give the Colts a clear path to the AFC South crown given the ease of their schedule as a whole.