This week is all about the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49'ers convening in the Big Easy for Super Bowl XLVII. This time next year, the football universe will be focused on the Big Apple as New York will host its first Super Bowl. If the Indianapolis Colts are to crash what is sure to be one heck of a party, they have some work to do this off season.
Win the AFC South
The Colts magical season this year was destined to end early because they had to go on the road for the playoffs. Despite winning seven of eight inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts managed only a split on the road. In fact, they didn't win against a team with a winning record away from Indianapolis, and two of their four wins on the road were the result of improbable comebacks (at Tennessee and at Detroit.)
Despite all that, the Colts still finished as AFC South runners-up which sent them on the road for the first round. While it's become somewhat commonplace for a wild-card round winner to make and even win the Super Bowl (2012 Ravens, 2011 Giants, 2010 Packers) those teams were quite experienced with players who were no strangers to winning in hostile environments.
Don't expect this still young Colts' team to suddenly become road warriors by the end of next season. The odds of them winning two or three games on the road in the playoffs will still be very small. But if they can get a first round bye and play at Lucas Oil during the post season, watch out.
In order to do that, they must…
Beat the Houston Texans
The Colts split with the Texans this season and finished just a game behind them in the final standings. Had the Colts not dropped a heartbreaker at home to Jacksonville, they would have finished as division champs this year. Still, that would have only netted them one home game in the wild card round. They still would have faced the task of winning at New England as the Texans did.
It will take 13-3 or 14-2 most likely to secure a first round bye in the AFC. Denver will continue to get better and the Patriots aren't going anywhere. The Ravens may slide a bit with Ray Lewis retiring and some key free agent departures, but Cincinnati is right on their heels. And of course, the Texans will still be in the mix.
The Colts schedule will be more challenging from their second place finish, but they do get the Broncos and Peyton Manning at home next year, a game whose outcome could determine a tie breaker come playoff time. Winning their divisional games will be paramount, however. The Colts should still be comfortably favored to pick up four wins over Tennessee and Jacksonville. If they can sweep the Texans and run the division, that will give them a leg up on the rest of the AFC.
In order to do that, they must…
Improve corners and interior line
It wasn't really Arian Foster that beat the Colts as much as Matt Schaub. The Colts' corners did a much better job containing Andre Johnson in the game in Indianapolis and came away with the victory. Vontae Davis must play 2013 like he did the second half of 2012 (and stay healthy) while the team figures out what to do at the other corner. They can't go into 2013 with the same personnel in the defensive backfield.
They've also got to upgrade the interior of the offensive line. JJ Watt is a difference maker, but Antonio Smith and the rest of the Texans' front seven can wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks as well. The Colts must keep the pocket cleaner for Andrew Luck in his second season, especially when facing the Texans.
They'll also need….
Less Luck and a little luck
Andrew Luck accounted for 75 per cent of the Colts total yardage this season. That's too one-dimensional. Super Bowl teams may have marquee quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but they also have multiple receiving threats and a viable running game. This year's contestants, the Niners and the Ravens, are both extremely versatile on offense.
For the Colts to reach Super Bowl XLVIII Vick Ballard will have to play a larger role in the offense and TY Hilton and at least one of the tight ends will have to join Reggie Wayne in having a Pro Bowl caliber season.
Of course, every team needs some bounces to go their way, too. Baltimore needed a fourth down and forever conversion in San Diego to win a game which ultimately allowed them to win their division. Of course they needed a Denver safety to play like a tee-baller in centerfield to get the win against the Broncos in the divisional round. In 2011, the Giants needed a late season surge to make the playoffs and a key special teams blunder to beat the Niners.
You get the idea. Getting to the Super Bowl requires some good football, but it also requires some lucky bounces along the way.
If these things can come together, your Indianapolis Colts could be freezing their tails off in MetLife Stadium next February in Super Bowl XLVIII.
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