INDIANAPOLIS – This is the perfect season to rebuild for the Indianapolis Colts. They're in an AFC of mediocrity.
In a normal season, the Colts couldn't think of playoff implications with the type of team they have in place. Anyone can quickly see the ABCs – and D's through G's – working against the Colts in a standard season's playoff scenario discussion:
A. Rookie quarterback.
B. Rookie head coach.
C. Rookie head coach replaced by interim rookie head coach.
D. Rookie tight ends, wide receiver and kick returner.
E. Former CFL player at middle linebacker.
F. Only one experienced wide receiver, albeit a great one.
G. Myriad injuries to key defensive players.
The reason none of those potential drawbacks disqualifies the Colts from contention has more to do with the rest of the AFC than the Colts' play, which has run the gamut from great (finish versus Green Bay Packers) to inept (entire New York Jets game).
Simply put, the AFC is weaker than ever.
How weak? If the season ended today, the Miami Dolphins would be a wild-card team.
The only teams in the league more than one game over .500 are the Houston Texans (6-1) and the Baltimore Ravens (5-2). The Texans just destroyed the Ravens after being destroyed by the Packers.
The list of 3-3 teams (such as the Colts) or 3-4 teams (such as the Colts' Sunday opponent, the Tennessee Titans) includes just about everybody else.
Four AFC teams have shown they should have staying power: Houston, Baltimore, the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos. However, the Patriots are 4-3 and the Broncos 3-3, so they aren't running away with anything. The Broncos, with Peyton Manning in the saddle, have played a pretty rough schedule, so all 3-3 marks are not created equal.
At least the Colts have experienced it all so far: They've lost to a powerhouse (Chicago Bears), a middle-of-the-road team (Jets) and an awful team (Jacksonville Jaguars). They've beaten a powerhouse (Packers), a middle-of-the-road team (Minnesota Vikings) and an awful team (Cleveland Browns).
This Sunday brings the type of opportunity that can push the Colts up a notch and into that group of teams fighting for position behind Houston, Baltimore, New England and Denver. If, and it's a big if, the Colts can snare their first road win, they're set up for advancing another step at home against Miami.
“We're here to get in the playoffs and play the game and go,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “We're with a bunch of teams right now and it's time to start stringing some wins together and adding to the excitement. There's nothing like getting in the playoff hunt and coming to practices with a bit more fervor and ready to go every Wednesday.”
So far, the Colts' road trips have been disastrous at Chicago and New York.
The defense has been gouged through the air, as in Jay Cutler teaming up with Brandon Marshall, and on the ground, as in the Jets turning loose Shonn Greene. The offense has yet to establish a rhythm on the road and hasn't helped the Colts' defense by giving up too many possessions.
“It's nigh impossible to win when you're minus-seven (in turnovers), or whatever we are on the road,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. “We know we have to clean that up and I think that goes in the overall theme of a little more focus, a little more consistency offensively, a little more attention to detail. We realize if we want to be a better football team, we are going to have to start winning on the road.”
The formula for the Colts to win at Tennessee and remain fully in the convoluted AFC playoff race isn't complicated. They have to avoid turnovers, as Luck mentioned. They need to establish a running game, and that's possible considering some momentum from the Browns game and the possible return of Donald Brown. They need to slow Titans running back Chris Johnson, which is easier said than done but has been done by the Colts in the past.
Luck has to play well, too.
In fact, Luck playing well would be the No.1 key not only to this game but to the ultimate goal of remaining in playoff contention.
Luck says a fast start at Tennessee is imperative.
“That's something we've talked a lot about this past week of starting fast against the Browns,” he said. “Going back two weeks, looking back at the Jets film on that Monday, start fast and maybe it's a different game. Obviously I'm not going to go back and go 'What if, what if, what if?' We had our chances but we didn't make them. I think starting fast is key in any game.”
There have been few fast starters in the AFC this season, at least in terms of records. The playoff race remains wide open as the half-way point nears. Normally, a rebuilding team like the Colts wouldn't dare dream. This is no normal season.