Indianapolis won their fourth game of the season Sunday, going on the road to play the Green Bay Packers in a game few had them favoured.
After starting 3-5, the margin for error was slim. The AFC South is forgiving but Indianapolis’s schedule outside it is not. Teams in the AFC West have a league-best 23 wins among them; the Colts have played three and will travel to Oakland in week 16.
The Colts have battled injuries all year but opting to take their bye week mid-season — rather than after their London game — gives them a chance to recuperate. And at the moment, they need it. Mike Adams, Kendall Langford, and Henry Anderson were all sidelined against the Packers but seem to be nearing returns. The offensive line has been hurting; two starters, Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz, missed Green Bay and Denzelle Good was a last-minute decision. The Colts lack depth, but their roster when healthy can compete against almost any team in the league.
The question after the bye week: can the Colts piece together enough wins to take the division? For an optimist’s guide to the rest of Indianapolis’s 2016 season, read on.
The Titans are in a tough spot. They looked primed to take the division after Indianapolis’s early-season struggles but lost two of their last three games, and now sit in the same 4-5 hole as the Colts. Andrew Luck is undefeated against the Titans including a win earlier this year, arguably their best all-around game; the Colts also get a two-week rest before the game, while the Titans play the Packers at home. It’s one of Indianapolis’s most favourable remaining matchups, and a game they’ll be favored in.
Scheduling could help Indianapolis in week 12 because it decidedly won’t help the Pittsburgh Steelers, who play on the road against Cleveland four days earlier. The Steelers also have a worse defense than last year’s 11th-ranked squad and by week 12, it will be the easiest defense (by far) the Colts have faced since week 1. If the Colts finally string together back-to-back wins by beating Tennessee they will likely go into this game as slight favorites, given home field advantage.
Speaking of winnable games, this is the by-far easiest remaining game on Indianapolis’s surprisingly difficult schedule. The Jets are 3-6 and will be coming off a game against New England; it’s a game the Colts should win, and their best chance at making up ground against Houston. If Tennessee is a favorable matchup and Pittsburgh is a coin-flip, the one against the Jets should be in the bag.
The Colts need this game to win their division — and conversely, a loss will make it nearly impossible to make the playoffs. The best-case scenario: the Colts match up well against the Texans, and would have beaten them earlier this year if not for a dramatic fourth-quarter collapse. Now at home, they’ll certainly be favored if coming off a four-game win streak (like I think they can). It’s not entirely likely the Colts will be 7-5 going up against Houston, but it’s possible.
Indianapolis’s final test really comes in the last stretch of the season, when they play Minnesota and Oakland on the road in back-to-back weeks. Both teams are trending in opposite directions; the Vikings are on a three-game losing streak and Indianapolis will be far better off if it stays that way. The most obvious reason is even if the Colts go on a four-game win streak following the break, which their schedule allows for, they still need to beat either Oakland or Minnesota to finish with a 9-7 record.
The Colts are 1-2 against the AFC West and could be 0-3 if not for a few lucky breaks against San Diego. But the division-leading Raiders seem to have the best team in the division, and they match up against Indianapolis; namely, their offense is virtually unstoppable. The Colts will be asked to travel multiple time zones, after playing on the road against Minnesota, only to face one of the hardest teams in the league.
The only scenario in which Indy wins this game is if the Chiefs and Broncos fall off and Oakland goes into … but then the Patriots would be … and the … um.
This is it; the game that will likely make or break the Colts season if they make it this far. I took a look at Houston and Tennessee and their remaining schedule and it isn’t easy; the Texans play four of their next five games on the road, and finish the season on the road against Tennessee. The Titans still play the Broncos and Chiefs, and a loss to Indianapolis in week 11 would make it virtually impossible to make the playoffs. Jacksonville is bad as always. In other words the division will likely be hovering around that 8-9 win range by week 17, and the Colts will have the easiest matchup by far.
- the Texans are 5-3, with an impressive -30 point differential. That’s worse than only three other AFC teams: Jacksonville (-62), the New York Jets (-62), and Cleveland (-105). The Texans have one other dubious credit to their name: 137 points scored this season, total. That’s worst in the AFC and fourth-worst league-wide.
- they’re also 0-3 on the road, but their schedule is most to blame for that; @New England, @Denver, and @Minnesota is hardly an easy go of things.
- they’ve never swept a season series against Indianapolis. This could bode ill for the week 14 matchup in Indiana, their fourth away game in five weeks.
On a final note, the Colts are 4-1 when I write the recaps and T.Y. Hilton lights up virtually every time. I’m not implying causation but it’s definitely on the table #keephimemployed #savetheColts #imsorryJerald