AFC Playoff Picture: Where Do The Indianapolis Colts Fit?

Where do the Indianapolis Colts fit in the AFC playoff picture? Is this a fluke team, that even though they are 6-3 now, is destined for a slide back to reality and home for January? Or, as Andrew Luck continues to improve, are they ready to not only secure playoff position, but maybe push Houston in the AFC South, given that both Colts-Texans game are ahead of us? To get a handle on this, TheSportsNotebook will review the overall body of work Indy has put together over nine games, with a special emphasis on their recent four-game win streak. Then we’ll look at the schedule ahead and the overall context of the AFC playoff picture.

Indianapolis’ biggest strength is simple—they run a lot of plays. When you rank 10th in the league in rush attempts and fifth in pass attempts, you’re getting to snap the ball frequently and sheer volume alone is going to give you an edge. The Colts then support this with solid special teams work—they lead the NFL in net punting, and their kick coverage team is one of the league’s best.  And when Indy chooses to run, they can take care of the ball, having fumbled only once all year and never lost one.

The weaknesses start in the same area though, and it’s turnovers. Luck has thrown nine interceptions and this, combined with a defensive inability to take the ball away, leaves the Colts with (-9) turnover differential that’s one of the league’s worst. For all the plays, the offense runs, they don’t rank very high in yards per play, either rushing or passing. The same problem exists on defense. If Indy ever loses its edge on volume, they are going to start losing games.

Indianapolis started 2-3, with home wins over playoff contending Minnesota and Green Bay. Both wins came on last-second field goals. When you stood them next to blowout losses to the Bears and Jets, and a home loss to Jacksonville, there was little reason to think this would be anything more than a developmental year for Luck and his new team.

Then the Colts caught fire and they’ve won four straight. If you’re an Indianapolis fan you can credibly argue that the statistical outlook of the team’s first nine games doesn’t adequately reflect how they will play in the last seven, because the young players, led by Luck, are on the rise. You can credibly argue that isolating this four-game win streak is *not* a case of selective evaluation, but rather a realistic look at where the team is on its upward rise. So let’s go a little closer into all four wins.

October 21: vs. Cleveland (17-13)—Indy really didn’t play all that well here and Browns rookie Brandon Weeden was more impressive than Luck, though both quarterbacks played well. The Colts did not protect their quarterback well, exposing him to three sacks and six QB hits. What they did do was run the ball, as rookie Vick Ballard rushed for 84 yards, and the team numbers were a decisive 148-55 for the Colts, producing the win.

October 28: at Tennessee (19-13, OT)—Another good day for the running game, with 171 rush yards. Donald Brown led the way, and along with Ballard, they were enough to offset Tennessee’s Chris Johnson. The Colts were a little bit better running, a little bit better passing and a little bit better on the scoreboard.

Nov 4: vs Miami (23-20)—This game looks destined to be remembered as Luck’s breakout performance. Neither team ran the ball well and Indianapolis committed 11 penalties. Luck put the team on his back, threw for 433 yards without an interception and the Colts had a win that looks positively monstrous in today’s AFC playoff picture.

Nov 8: at Jacksonville (27-10): It’s a mark of how far Indy has come that they can manhandle a bad team on the road, the way did in Jacksonville last Thursday night. Luck was efficient, throwing for 227 yards. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert had good numbers, but given how quickly Indianapolis took the lead, the Jaguar quarterback had little choice but to throw most of the night. Indianapolis’ ability to run the ball and not put it on the ground served them well here.

In looking at these four games, none really stands out. The opponents are all sub-.500 and the Browns and Jaguars are positively awful. But the consistency that Indianapolis is developing is what does stand out when you look at them as a body of work. You see the running game always there. You see Luck improving, and most important, you see that his interceptions came almost exclusively in the first five games of the year. It’s very reasonable to think these last four mistake-free games are a better indicator of what we’ll see from him down the stretch.

Indianapolis position in the playoff race is even better. At 6-3, they are tied with Pittsburgh among wild-card teams and both the Colts and Steelers are firmly in line for the two berths. The chasing teams are all 4-5, with Miami, Cincinnati and San Diego. The Colts already have a win over the Dolphins and the other two have major consistency issues.  Furthermore, if any of these chasing teams get on an unlikely run, the veteran teams in Pittsburgh and Baltimore look at least as vulnerable as the Colts.

The schedule is going to pick up in intensity and it starts on Sunday when Indianapolis visits New England. They also have a road game at unpredictable Detroit and two of the final three games are against Houston.  It’s important that Indianapolis win home games against Buffalo and Tennessee, and then take care of Kansas City on the road. That gets you to nine wins and it might be necessary for a single win in any of the difficult remaining games.

Then we come to those two remaining games against Houston in Weeks 15 & 17. If the Colts stumble in spots where they shouldn’t, those games will look like curses. But if Indy takes care of business, it could be opportunity—perhaps they’ll be in striking distance in the AFC South. It’s something no one would have remotely expected at the start of the year and maybe no one expects it now. But this is a team playing for a special cause, as head coach Chuck Pagano begins chemo treatments for leukemia and no one is ready to bet against them.