Saturday, January 8, 2011

Seeing it Both Ways

The Colts play the New York Jets today in what will either be the start of a great playoff run or the coda to an atypical Colts season. It could go either way...and here's why.

Ten Reasons the Colts Are Super Bowl Bound

1. They're peaking at the right time: The Colts were mired in a mid-season slump that saw them fall to 6-6. They had to win out to make it into the playoffs and emerged as champions of a weak division. However, the way they won their final games was impressive, keyed by a tough running game, hard-nosed defense, and sharp execution.

2. Peyton Manning is postseason tested: Manning doesn't boast the world's best playoff record. However, he's led the Colts to three AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls. The monkey is off his back in terms of postseason football; he's won the big one. He's the most well-prepared and experienced quarterback in football. Period.

3. Offensive line cohesion: This offensive line couldn't run block or pass protect for most of the season. Even though Peyton was sacked a relatively low number of times, pressure was in his face for most of the season. In the past few weeks, however, the line has played much better. I almost called them "road graders" a few weeks ago, and then thought better of it.

4. Looks like Clark, plays like Clark: Jacob Tamme isn't Dallas Clark, okay? But go watch some of the past games this season and squint. For a brief second, you'll see Dallas Clark making the play or running downfield. Sometimes, Tamme's body language is eerily similar. He's not Dallas Clark, but he's the next best thing available for Indy right now...a speedy, nightmare match-up capable of breaking the big play.

5. They're not scared of New England: You may be able to say this about any NFL team, however you'd be wrong. The rest of the league is scared and intimidated by the Unstoppable Patriots Machine. The Colts are not. They've beaten New England at home and on the road; they've also lost to the Patriots in both situations. These teams know each other like the back of their hands...and the Colts aren't scared one bit. Manning threw three stinking interceptions against them and still almost won the freaking game. Imagine what would happen if the Colts played them and DIDN'T dig a giant hole for themselves.

6. Gary Brackett's "dirty" reputation: After getting a third fine for an illegal hit, Gary Brackett is going to be ticked off. And he's also playing just about as well as I've seen him play. That guy has been all over the field in the last few weeks...and no one is keeping him out of the backfield.

7. Youthful enthusiasm: Over the last couple of seasons, there has been this perception that the Colts are an aging starlet desperately clinging to the last burning embers of their glory days. But changes have come quickly and decisively, and a new cast of young Colts--Tamme, Jacob Lacey, Pierre Garcon, Pat Angerer--is leading the way. They're making key contributions for a team that needed a shot in the arm.

8. Rhodes rides again: Dominic Rhodes has been so good in the last few weeks, even Manning wondered aloud why the team ever got rid of him. Dom and Joe Addai were a great veteran-rookie-one-two punch in 2006. Rhodes' return in 2008 was unspectacular, but this year he's rejuvenated, bringing some much-needed toughness to the running game and the team in general.

9. Echoes of the past: The Colts are a three seed, just like they were when they won the Super Bowl. They stumbled at times during the regular season, just like they did when they won the Super Bowl. They'll have to win a road game against a run-oriented, defense-first team from the AFC North, just like they did when they won the Super Bowl.

10. Veteran presence: With guys like Manning, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Antoine Bethea, Brackett, Ryan Diem, Addai, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Rhodes on the roster, the Colts are well-stocked with smart, consistent, and talented players who've been there before. They've played on the biggest stage and won; they've played on national TV and won; they've done it on the road with defense and mistake-free football.

Ten Reasons the Colts Are Finished

1. The injury bug: Even with the league's best QB, the Colts are simply missing too many key parts. We all know about Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, but what about Clint Session, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, Jamie Silva, and Kelvin Hayden? They're not healthy on either side of the ball, and when it's crunch time, do you really trust Blair White or Justin Tryon?

2. Tall order: If the playoffs shake out as expected, the Colts will have to win road games at Pittsburgh and New England. Not only would they have to go through the conference's top two seeds, they would have to do it outdoors in weather that neutralizes their speed advantage.

3. Leaky secondary: Mediocre passers like David Garrard, Jason Campbell, and Kerry Collins lit up the Colts secondary during the last part of the season. While the D was great against the run, no one will hesitate to attack guys like Aaron Francisco, Justin Tryon, Mike Richardson, Mike Newton, and Cornelius Brown. There's a lot of pressure on these guys, especially if teams max-protect to keep Freeney and Mathis from going wild.

3a. Special concern: This is related to a couple of other points I've already made, but injuries have taken their toll on the team and a lot of players are either new or taking on expanded roles. Kickoff and punt coverage has been pretty shaky in this latter part of the season.

4. Protecting Peyton: The offensive line experienced a series of constant shakeups this season and pass protection has been spotty. Manning has been knocked around more than I've ever seen him get knocked around. It's accelerated the clock in his head, led to misreads, and resulted in poor throws and turnovers.

5. Sluggish start: Manning isn't the same quarterback in the playoffs...and this season, the Colts have had a tendency to get off to sluggish starts. That's a deadly trait to have in the playoffs, when the pressure jumps and players tighten up when things go south.

6. The Patriots are unbeatable: Sure, they lost to the Cleveland Browns, but the Pats have been winning in dominating fashion since Thanksgiving. They're playing their best football of the year at the most important time of the year. They're leading the league with a +28 in turnover ratio. Check out their domination since de-clawing the Lions:

@ Lions 45-24 W
vs Jets 45-3 W
@ Bears 36-7 W
vs Packers 31-27 W
@ Bills 34-3 W
vs Dolphins 38-7 W

7. The Jets are hungry: The Jets excited the NFL with an unexpected run to the AFC Championship Game last year, but it felt to many like they had a little too much success, too early. This is their year, with a more experienced Mark Sanchez, a great complement to Darrelle Revis in Antonio Cromartie, a rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson, a healthy Shonn Greene, and a great addition to the offense in Santonio Holmes.

8. They lucked into a division championship: The AFC South was supposed to be the most competitive division in football, with the Colts, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars all bludgeoning one another into oblivion. It kind of happened that way, but all teams lost games they should've won, the Titans' Vince Young finally went batty, the Texans taught a predictable course in self-destruction, and the Jaguars used a befuddling timeout by Jim Caldwell to kick their way into the division lead. While the Colts took control late in the season, the Jaguars simply weren't up to the task, and the Texans and Titans were playoff non-factors.

9. Evil Peyton: For an amazing span of three games, Manning was his own worst enemy, throwing 11 interceptions against the Patriots, Chargers, and Cowboys. Four of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns. If Evil Peyton returns for any span in the playoffs, the Colts are done.

10. Turnovers: The Colts are -4 on the season in terms of turnover ratio, a far cry from +2 last year, +9 in 2008, +18 in 2007, and +7 in 2006. Their defense can't force key turnovers like they have in past seasons, and their offense makes too many mistakes.