To get ready for Sunday's game, I exchanged five questions with Matt Grecco from Stampede Blue, SB Nation's Indianapolis Colts blog. My answers to his questions can be found later over at SB, and his answers to my questions are below.
1. Obviously drafting Andrew Luck and bringing in a new coaching staff helped jump-start the Colts' turnaround, but what else went into their transformation back into a playoff contender?
Honestly, the biggest thing this season has been the schedule, which has been the easiest in the NFL. They've played most of the better teams on the road (Chicago, New England) and a lot of not-so-good teams at home, where they're 5-1 on the season, and the 1 was an 80-yard blown coverage in the final 2 minutes against Jacksonville. They play with a confidence at home that they won't lose, and they've been nearly perfect so far this season, even when they didn't play well.
2. Speaking of Luck, he was viewed coming out of college as one of the most NFL-ready quarterbacks in years. So far, it seems he has at the very least lived up to those high expectations. Has he exceeded your personal expectations, and just how high is the ceiling for Luck going forward? Can he be the next Peyton Manning?
I thought the Andrew Luck we're seeing this year would be what we saw next year, although he's been a different QB at home and on the road. He's thrown 10 INTs in five road games, and just 3 in six home games. He's already being asked to carry a pretty bad defense, which was a Peyton Manning staple for a decade. I think 11 games is a little premature to say he's going to get to Manning's level (not many, if anyone, is), but you already see the command of the offense we saw with Manning, and he does have the added dimension of being able to scramble effectively. The coaching staff and his teammates have raved about Luck's work ethic, something Manning was also well known for. I can tell you that there isn't a day that goes by that thinks about how long franchises go between stud QBs, and we Colts fans only waited 12 months. Incredibly fortunate.
3. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Colts this season is what they have done on the field despite having to deal with the absence of head coach Chuck Pagano, who is fighting leukemia. How have the Colts rallied around Pagano, and how has Bruce Arians done in the role of interim head coach?
I think Arians will get serious consideration for Coach of the Year, as he's kept this team focused, on message and will tell everyone that this is still Pagano's team, Pagano's vision, etc. He's filled into the role way better than anyone can imagine. Emotion isn't as much a part of the NFL as I think it is in college football, but this Colts team is starting to make me rethink that. I think the whole team has drawn inspiration from the fight their head coach is putting up, and it's a message of "if Chuck can go through that, we can play that much harder in this game." I don't think it's a coincidence the Colts are playing better at home, as I think Pagano has been present for several of those games.
4. Looking back on the start to the Colts' season, they opened with a 2-3 record that included big losses to the Bears and Jets and a close loss to the Jaguars. Since then, the Colts have gone 5-1. What have the Colts done so much better in their last six games compared to their first five?
Like I said earlier, the schedule got quite manageable, as all five teams they beat are under .500, with the Dolphins really being the only team that has shown signs of being a good team this season. The offense did improve during that stretch, playing pretty well in four of those five games, which they did not do early on in the season. The biggest improvement came in what we've coined at Stampede Blue as the Orange Zone, which is the area inside the opponents' 35-yard line. The Colts still aren't very good, but they got better at cashing in points each time they were there, which they weren't doing early on. Surprisingly, the defense was even worse in four of those games, while playing well against the Jaguars and Bills. They've been able to beat the teams that are worse than them but have been blown out by the teams better than them.
5. Looking ahead to the final five weeks of the season, the Colts' schedule includes two games against the Texans, as well as games against the Lions, Titans and Chiefs. Do you think the Colts will be able to finish strong enough to make the playoffs? And even if they don't, what does a season like this mean for the Colts as a franchise considering how quickly they've turned things around since moving on from the Manning era?
In the AFC there are only three teams for two wild-card spots: the Colts, Steelers and Bengals, and the Colts should hold any tiebreaker over either team. I believe two wins in their final five games will get them in, and with the Titans and Chiefs on the schedule I expect the Colts to get into the playoffs and promptly get blown out by whoever they play. Regardless of whether this scenario plays out, or the team hits the "rookie wall," the season will be a complete success, as all the young players got a full year of experience in a no-pressure year. A playoff game would really be a cherry on the top. It's amazing to think that just a year ago the Colts fielded one of the worst teams in NFL history and completely gutted their team and front office, and I'd be shocked if they don't make the playoffs this year. Every decision the team has made since the end of last season has worked out wonderfully so far. I'm quite optimistic about the future.
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