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Are the Colts Quietly the Best Team in the AFC?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 6, 2019

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

A little luck is helpful. A lot of luck will take someone far. A dominant Andrew Luck turns the Indianapolis Colts from a dangerous postseason opponent into the AFC's most complete squad. 

The healthy and calm-in-the-pocket version of Luck seen during Saturday's 21-7 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium harks back to the once-in-a-lifetime quarterback prospect who took the league by storm. 

Luck no longer needs to be the franchise's focal point behind a dominant offensive line, a potent running game and a fundamentally sound defense. But he still can be if needed. All of these factors coalescing at the same time make this arguably the best Colts team in the post-Peyton Manning era, which is surprising when you consider this year's squad started 1-5 before winning 10 of its next 11 contests. 

The fact that the Colts even reached this point is amazing. 

No one knew if Luck would be able to play this season after he missed all of the 2017 campaign with a shoulder injury. Frank Reich wasn't supposed to be the head coach, either. A last-minute change of heart from Josh McDaniels forced the Colts to recalibrate and hire Reich. The franchise had already signed three assistant coaches at McDaniels' request, and they had to be assimilated into Reich's staff. 

"When we hired (Frank Reich) I said, 'How could we have [been] so stupid?' owner Jim Irsay said, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. "He should've been our first choice."

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Somehow, it all worked out in the Colts' favor. And it's only getting better. 

Luck, in particular, is living up to what could have been considered unfair expectations after he was touted as the best quarterback since Manning or John Elway. He played extremely well before his bum shoulder but developed bad habits due to poor protection, lack of a running game and injuries. 

Now, Luck's best version fits into a young and talented roster. 

The 29-year-old signal-caller posted career highs this season in completion percentage (67.3) and quarterback rating (98.7). He completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns and an interception Saturday. His improved efficiency shows in the precision of his throws from the pocket or on the move.

Two specific passes highlight both areas. 

Luck set up the Colts' first touchdown with a 38-yard toss to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton: 

NFL @NFL

Andrew Luck + @TYHilton13 feeling good EARLY. 📺: #INDvsHOU on ESPN/ABC #NFLPlayoffs https://t.co/y9pfN2H7oz

The end-zone angle shows how Luck makes a difficult throw look easy. First, he adjusted his launch point to avoid pressure. He still took the hit, but not before he uncorked the pass. The ball landed gently as a feather between three Texans defenders and into the waiting arms of Hilton. 

Now, watch as Luck rolls to his left to avoid pressure and allow his receiver to become available: 

NFL @NFL

Andrew Luck making it look easy. 📺: #INDvsHOU on ESPN/ABC #NFLPlayoffs https://t.co/sw9NbhDdYj

Neither results in a touchdown, yet both helped extend drives. 

Sometimes a quarterback just needs to drop, hit his back step, rip a pass to the sideline from the opposite hash and stop the opponent's momentum like Luck did in the fourth quarter to Hilton: 

NFL @NFL

Andrew Luck is ballin' #Colts WATCH: https://t.co/jySUGXnVx9 📺: #INDvsHOU on ESPN/ABC #NFLPlayoffs https://t.co/KQhrXCTL5g

Two major differences exist in Luck's game today compared to ghosts of seasons past. His throwing motion is much tighter after he retaught himself how to throw a football as part of the rehabilitation process. Also, Luck is far more comfortable with his offensive line, and his footwork is greatly improved, as former offensive line coach Paul Alexander noted: 

Paul Alexander @CoachPaulAlex

ANDREW LUCK, without a doubt, is setting up not as deep this year. I've studied him extensively. His footwork is shorter and he's easier to protect. This is a qk 7 step play action drop. Lots of QBs end up at 10 yards depth … only to their demise. @CaptAndrewLuck #Colts https://t.co/xUUeN1xzCG

A confident quarterback in the pocket tends to be the result of a reliable offensive front. The Colts offensive line developed throughout the season into one of the league's best. The ripple effects are clear throughout the team's entire approach. 

Everything starts with All-Pro rookie Quenton Nelson. The fact that a guard deserves so much recognition says it all, but a closer inspection shows a truly special talent. Former NFL offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger summed up Nelson's yearlong performance with one play: 

Rich Ohrnberger @ohrnberger

Colts LG Quenton Nelson is a savant.. -Varies his pass sets to avoid being “set-up” -Joins hips with adjacent linemen and moves bodies on DBL teams -Athletic puller/zone blocker -Nasty attitude...plays low and mean. ..here he is vs Jadeveon Clowney https://t.co/DxuzQpHqgC

Nelson's greatest asset isn't overwhelming upper-body strength, advanced technique or movement skills; it's that his attitude is infectious. For years, the Colts featured one of the league's softest fronts. He's now must-watch television.

However, he added to an offensive line with a few pieces already in place. Former first-round pick Ryan Kelly (who returned from injury Saturday), left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right guard Mark Glowinski all had significant starting experience. The final piece fell into place when fellow rookie Braden Smith took over at right tackle. 

This group can impose its will even against a defense featuring J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney

The Colts set two franchise postseason rushing records Saturday, with Marlon Mack running for 148 yards and the team managing 200 yards. More importantly, the Colts put the game away by keeping it on the ground with six straight running plays. 

The Texans didn't allow a single 100-yard rusher all season, leading the league by giving up a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. Indianapolis came in and averaged 5.7 yards. 

"In playoff football, how do you win games?" Reich asked in his postgame speech. "You dominate up front. That's playoff football ... It's complementary. 

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass as head coach Frank Reich watches before the game against the Houston Texans during the Wild Card Round at NRG Stadium on January 5, 2019 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tim
Tim Warner/Getty Images

Efficient quarterback play behind a strong offensive line and capable ground-and-pound approach is even more successful if the defense isn't a sieve. 

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has been a wizard with the available talent, converting Chuck Pagano's 3-4 into a Cover 2-inspired approach to create one of the league's most prolific zone schemes. The Colts were second to only the Los Angeles Chargers in using zone coverage on 74 percent of regular-season plays, according to the telecast. 

Eberflus forced Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson to beat the Colts. The second-year signal-caller couldn't do it. He dinked and dunked throughout the contest and relied more on his athleticism to get anything going in the second half. 

Calculated risks also helped shut down the Texans offense. 

During Houston's final fourth-down play, the Colts employed a five-man blitz. Linebacker Anthony Walker came on a delayed A-gap dog, which drew the offensive interior's attention. Cornerback Kenny Moore blitzed from the slot, drove Texans running back Lamar Miller into Watson and knocked the quarterback off balance, and the ball fell short of its intended target. 

The league's 11th-ranked defense isn't littered with recognizable talent, but they fly to the football while playing with sound fundamentals. 

All of these factors are in the Colts' favor, and the entire package can't be found on any other AFC squad. Kansas City, which Indianapolis faces next weekend at Arrowhead Stadium, isn't nearly as good on defense. Philip Rivers isn't as mobile and is playing behind a more susceptible offensive front. The Ravens don't have much of a downfield passing attack. The Patriots aren't as explosive, either, after losing Josh Gordon to an indefinite suspension. 

Luck will lead the way, but he no longer needs to shoulder the load. 

       

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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