The latest in our semi-regular series that looks at the other potential playoff teams in the AFC. This week, it’s the Colts.
Well, this was unexpected.
The Colts’ 5-3 start this season can be partially attributed to a spark providing from a new coaching staff, a hotshot quarterback and the emotional charge provided by the team rallying behind head coach Chuck Pagano, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia, going from “Suck for Luck” to “Don’t Suck for Chuck.” It can also partially be attributed to the fact that the Colts were bad last season, but not 2-14 bad.
It’s been a bizarre early going for the Colts, who lost their season opener to the Bears … which makes sense. Then, they beat an upstart Vikings team, which was surprising. Then, they lost to the Jaguars (Jacksonville’s only victory so far this season), which makes no sense. After a Week 4 bye, the Colts seem to have figured out who they are as a team, racking up four wins in five weeks, including a win against the Packers  in Week 5, a week before, oddly enough, a rough loss to the Jets the following week.
The main storyline for the Colts this season has been their playing for their ill coach, a motivation that has led to some great victories. While it may be time to wonder how many times the Colts can play the ‘Win This One for Chuck’ Card, here’s what we know about the Colts:
1. Andrew Luck  is as good as advertised
The success of the top overall pick this season really raises one important question for the Indianapolis Colts : Just how bad were their quarterbacks last season?
After an early season experiment with then-38-year old Kerry Collins  blew up in their faces, the Colts tried to run with Peyton Manning ‘s former backup Curtis Painter  at the helm, which also failed to produce much offense or, more importantly, any wins. The answer, it turned out, came in the form of journeyman Dan Orlovsky , who posted decent numbers in leading the Colts to two wins in their final three games, putting up serviceable numbers in the process.
What may be surprising is the fact that Luck hasn’t been all that more efficient than his predecessors. Luck’s current passer rating of 79.0 is actually lower than Orlovsky’s 82.4 and all that much higher than the team rating of 72.2. The biggest difference has actually been in terms of pure production, which is where Luck has completely transcended the Colts’ quarterback play in 2011.
After eight weeks, Luck is currently tied with Manning at fourth in the NFL in passing yardage with 2,404 yards, good for 300.5 yards per game. Painter, the Colts’ 2011 leader in yards per game, averaged just 171.2 yards per outing. Luck has also posted improved numbers in interception percentage, touchdown percentage and ESPN’s QBR stat with a mark of 76.09. No Colts quarterback posted a mark above 50 — the average rating — for 2011.
2. Rumors or Reggie Wayne ‘s demise have been greatly exaggerated
When Manning skipped town and the Great Colts Firesale of 2012 began during the offseason this year, there was speculation that Wayne could end up in New England, where he’d serve as a role player at receiver to finish out his career. Unexpectedly, Wayne stayed in Indianapolis with what was expected to be a long-term rebuilding effort. Turns out Wayne made the right call, finding new life with Luck under center.
Through eight games, Wayne has played the best football of his pro career. He currently leads the NFL with 835 receiving yards (a career-high 104.4 per game) with 61 receptions, putting him at a career-high 7.6 catches per game. At his current pace, Wayne only needs 14 receptions, 125 receiving yards and one touchdown to match his numbers from all of 2011.
Whether his numbers are a product of excellence or necessity is a matter of debate, but the fact that Wayne has posted such monster numbers after the departure of No. 2 receiver Pierre Garcon , the perpetual concussion symptoms of receiver Austin Collie  and the departure of tight ends Jacob Tamme and Dallas Clark  is impressive for the overhauled passing game. Although, with Donnie Avery  and T.Y. Hilton getting the bulk of the snaps at the other receiver spots, it should be no surprise that Wayne is Luck’s go-to receiver.
3. The Colts have a whole new look on defense
For many Patriots fans, the lasting image of the Colts defense has been defensive end Dwight Freeney  lining up on Tom Brady ‘s blindside opposite Matt Light  in another intense matchup. Obviously, with Light’s retirement, we’re not going to see them face off like that again. However, just like Light’s days at left tackle are over, so are Freeney’s days as a pure edge pass rusher.
When Pagano replaced Jim Caldwell  as head coach, one of his first moves was to replace the Tampa 2 scheme that had been in place in Indianapolis since Tony Dungy  first became head coach there in 2002. Now in 2012, the Colts are running a more aggressive 3-4 scheme as opposed to Dungy’s scheme, which was a conservative approach based upon playing a lot of cover 2 looks.
The biggest change the 3-4 scheme will provide will be moving Freeney (and his talented but much less-heralded counterpart Robert Mathis  at the other end) from defensive end to outside linebacker in what is a complete contrast of the transition the Patriots defense  has made over the past couple seasons. With the change, Freeney and Mathis will not necessarily be rushing the passer on every play. However, when they do blitz, they now have the option of blitzing anywhere across the defensive front, a new dimension that has put new sorts of pressure on opposing offenses.
The new-look defense has provided a boon for Mathis, who has six sacks in five games this season. Freeney, meanwhile, as yet to break out in the new scheme, tallying just four tackles, including just two sacks, in six games this season. Despite a lack of production from their premiere defensive player, the change has proven to be a positive for the defense as a whole. The Colts, who allowed 26.9 points per game in 2011 (28th in the NFL) are allowing 23.9 points per game so far this season, good for 23rd in the league.
The Colts are out to a strong start, but with an elite Texans team sitting atop the division, Indy’s only shot at the postseason is through the wild card. Fortunately for the Colts, their schedule down the stretch is favorable. Outside of a trip to New England and two games against the Texans, the Colts are sure to rack up a few wins. In a weak AFC this year, the Colts will likely only need four wins to snatch up a wildcard spot. With two games against one-win teams, the Colts would only have to earn wins in those two games and go 2-1 against the Titans, Lions and Bills to have a legitimate shot and that’s without considering the chance that they could upset the Pats  or Texans.
Colts remaining schedule:
Week 10 at Jaguars (1-7)
Week 11 at Patriots (5-3)
Week 12 vs Bills (3-5)
Week 13 at Lions (4-4)
Week 14 vs Titans (3-6)
Week 15 at Texans (7-1)
Week 16 at Chiefs (1-7)
Week 17 vs Texans (7-1)