Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay emerged from a demoralized locker room at Gillette Stadium after a 45–7 AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots and tried to offer reassurance.
“We’re close,” he said, despite evidence to the contrary. Heads shook in disbelief. Close to what?
It’s not just last January that sticks in the scarred psyches of this franchise and fans. It’s the previous January at Foxborough, Mass., as well, when the Colts were run over 43–22 by the Patriots in an AFC Divisional playoff rout.
The Colts have won 11 regular-season games in three consecutive years, and they’ve advanced one round farther in each of the past two postseasons. But they’ve been unable to survive the Patriots games. The defending Super Bowl champions visit Indianapolis again in 2015. If the Colts are going to take that next step, they must dethrone the champs, not just on Oct. 18 but in January.
Quarterback Andrew Luck is coming off his best Pro Bowl season yet after leading the NFL with 40 touchdown passes. He’s got what is probably the best supporting cast in his four seasons with the additions of running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Andre Johnson and the first-round draft selection of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to go with Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and the tight end tandem of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
Luck spoke at the outset of offseason training activities about improving red-zone efficiency and cutting down on turnovers. He had 22 of the team’s 31 giveaways, almost double his number from the previous season. The Colts ranked 12th in touchdowns scored when driving inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. While 42-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri is still a reliable three-point option, the NFL’s No. 6 scoring offense — at 28.6 points per game — could have put up more.
This next offense could be one of the league’s best, presuming Luck (100 sacks taken in three seasons) has time to spread the ball around to a receiving corps that improved despite 14-year star Reggie Wayne not being re-signed. Hilton and Dorsett are speed burners. Johnson, the Houston Texans’ all-time receiving leader, is determined to prove he has something left. The 33-year-old target provides size and experience. Gore, 32, is also motivated to show there’s still life left in his legs. Johnson and Gore came to Indianapolis because they thought the Colts gave them the best shot at an elusive Super Bowl ring. And they link that objective to Luck.
Four losses to the Patriots during the three-year era of general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano have been by an average of 29 points. New England has scored 189 points, 47.3 per game, in those blowouts. So while the Colts own the AFC South Division and have progressed to near the top of the league in status, they have to figure out a way to stop or least reduce points scored by the Patriots.
Outside linebacker Trent Cole arrived via free agency from Philadelphia and should team with franchise all-time sack leader Robert Mathis to form one of the best league’s best pass-rush tandems. That is, if Mathis can get healthy. He missed all of last season due to a four-game suspension and Achilles tendon tear. The Colts’ 3-4 pass rush could still be formidable if Mathis needs time to find his stride. Outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6.5 sacks as a rookie, and outside linebacker Erik Walden had six.
But the problem in playoffs past started with run defense. The Patriots ran for 177 yards and three scores last time, after 234 yards and six rushing TDs the year before. Defensive end Kendall Langford comes over from St. Louis and should be a solid run stuffer. Defensive tackle Arthur Jones needs to stay healthy — he started just three of nine games due to an ankle injury. The Colts traded up in the fifth round to draft Stanford nose tackle David Parry, evidence that the team isn’t sold on Josh Chapman and/or Montori Hughes as the only run-plugging answer. Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson was drafted in the third round and was considered by many to be a steal, given his high-motor ability to get consistent backfield penetration in college.
Inside linebacker Nate Irving was signed away from Denver to provide a stronger run-stopping option inside. While D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman are tackling machines, Freeman is better suited for pass defense, blitzing and using his speed to run down ball carriers. The cornerback trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and nickel back Darius Butler returns, but safety is a concern. Mike Adams, 34, made his first Pro Bowl last season. Dwight Lowery comes over from Atlanta, and hard-hitting Clayton Geathers was drafted in the fourth round. So the defense still has questions entering training camp.
Vinatieri, punter/kickoff specialist/holder Pat McAfee and long snapper Matt Overton might be the league’s best triumvirate. Vinatieri made 30-of-31 field goals. He didn’t miss until the season finale. McAfee boomed an NFL-best 70 touchbacks (on kickoffs) and was third in net punting average at 42.8 yards. Overton is almost always on the mark with his snaps. Dorsett is expected to get a crack at returning. The Colts were tied for second in kickoff returns but 26th in punt returns. Josh Cribbs was released a day after Dorsett was drafted. Dorsett impressed the Colts with his Hilton-like speed — he ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, then 4.27 and 4.29 at his pro day.
If Irsay is to be proven prophetic and the Colts have enough to exorcise Patriots demons, a lot has to go their way. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs would be a start. Good health, including Mathis and along the offensive line, would be key. It’s possible but unlikely that everything will go according to plan. It almost never does.
The offense should be undeniably potent. There’s just too much talent, and Luck is a star on the rise. The Colts will pile up points. The question is defense. It must be more like the team that stopped Peyton Manning and Denver on the road in the playoffs to have any chance against the Patriots. Granted, Manning was playing on one leg due to an injury, but the Colts didn’t allow a touchdown after the first quarter. That game has Irsay believing his team is close.
Irsay spoke after the draft about how he expected the Colts to win at least two Super Bowls during the Luck era. The 55-year-old owner is haunted by the regret of a Manning era that produced only one Super Bowl win. Irsay has said that the Colts should have won more with their previous franchise quarterback. Irsay’s expectation is to win back-to-back titles at some point. He considers such an accomplishment a testament to greatness. The next round of Patriots games awaits. Maybe the Colts have what it takes, finally, to be great. That’s a big maybe.