The 2018 Indianapolis Colts managed to do what only two other teams have done since the AFL-NFL merger. They found a way to march into the playoffs after beginning their season 1-5, and join the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals and 2015 Kansas City Chiefs in the rare category.
Beginning the first quarter of the season at 1-3, Indianapolis found a way to improve in each successive quarter during the season (2-2, 3-1, and finally 4-0). Finally ending at 10-6, the 2018 Colts are a far cry from the pre-season predictions given by ESPN, USA Today Sports, and several other sports news outlets. Back in August, USA TODAY Sports picked the Colts to go just 2-14, and ranked them dead last in the NFL power rankings, ESPN Staff writer Mike Wells had the Colts going 7-9 when he wrote his game-by-game prediction prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, and IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer gave his prediction on September 5th, and pictured the Colts at 7-9.
Looking back, I can see where the poor projections came from. Andrew Luck, who had finally worked his way back from a torn labrum, was a huge question mark. The secrecy intimidated many, and questions were raised about his ability to withstand the rigors of a full NFL season. Additionally, many were afraid that Luck would face a tough time behind an offensive line that had just given up 56 sacks (NFL high) the year prior. All of this mixed with being the NFL’s youngest team, a historically poor defense, and having Josh McDaniels’ pull a disappearing act was a recipe for disaster.
However, these things that seemed to be road blocks at the time, can now be looked at as blessings in disguise. Andrew Luck is as healthy as he’s ever been and put together another top 5 quarterback year. Young players and free agent acquisitions stepped up this year in a big way. Eric Ebron had a career year on his way to a Pro Bowl selection, Marlon Mack stepped into the lead role, and Denico Autry led the Colts with 9 sacks. Then the rookies were sensational. Guards Quenton Nelson (Pro Bowl) and Braden Smith helped form a wall that only let up 18 sacks all year (NFL best), running back Nyheim Hines caught 63 passes on the year, as well as totaling 739 yards from scrimmage and 4 touchdowns, and defensive rookie of the year candidate Leonard posted a franchise record and NFL leading 163 tackles, while also tallying 7 sacks, 8 pass deflections, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions during an impressive rookie campaign.
…but wait there’s more!
The Colts defense under Matt Eberflus (a leftover Josh McDaniels assistant) managed to work their way to rank 11th in total defense, 8th in rushing defense, 10th in points against, and were one of 3 teams that didn’t allow a single 100 yard rusher all season (New Orleans and Houston were the others).
On the offensive side of the ball, the Colts’ skill position players were explosive. The offense’s 27.1 points per game ranks 5th in the NFL, to go along with being 7th in total yards (386.2) and 6th in passing yards per game (278.8). Running back Marlon Mack totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns on the year, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton led Colts pass catchers with 76 receptions and 1270 receiving yards, and Eric Ebron had a nose for the end zone, as found pay dirt on 14 occasions (13 rec/1 rush).
Special teams didn’t flex their muscles too often this season, but were effective when they did. The Colts are tied with Tampa Bay for the 4th fewest punts on the year (57). However, Punter Rigoberto Sanchez and the punt team managed to generate the third best net punting averaging with 44.5 yards per punt. Also, out of the 57 punts, 24 were fielded inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. Indianapolis gave up only 93 punt return yards all year which was second only to the New Orleans Saints who gave up just 60.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri showed that he’s still got it this year. The all-time leader in points went 23 of 27 on field goals this season (long 54 twice), including a game winner in the final seconds against Miami. The 46 year old has been a mentor and vocal leader in the Colts locker room, as well as an inspiration for old guys everywhere.
Frank Reich came to Indianapolis preaching one important mantra, “have an obsession to finish.” I think that mantra was embraced and fully encapsulates the Colts’ 2018 season. Starting 1-5 and facing elimination, Indianapolis dug in, and out muscled 9 of their last 10 opponents to secure a wildcard birth. Darius Leonard has mentioned on Twitter this week that the Colts aren’t satisfied, as he was quoted tweeting,…”We’re not happy that we’re in the playoffs, we’re trying to hold up that Lombardi trophy.” The Colts have improved every quarter of the season, and it would be the ultimate improvement and show of perseverance if they can manage to string together 4 more wins on the road to the Super Bowl.
photo credit: Christopher Hanewinckel- USA TODAY Sports