Every NFL team begins the season with one vision, to stand on the platform at the end of the season, confetti raining down and holding the Lombardi Trophy. It doesn't matter what happened last year. The Colts last season, despite coming off a 2-14 season and new faces everywhere but in the owners' suite had the same dream.
Last year, of course, it was more of a pipe dream. That the Colts finished 11-5 and earned a wild-card playoff berth amid all that transition and their head coach's illness was nothing short of a miracle. This year, however, the Colts' hopes for hoisting the silver football aren't just the stuff of fantasy. It could happen.
Of course there will be 19-20 games to be played before that dream can become a reality and a lot can happen between now and then. The parity-filled NFL doesn't allow much margin for error. For the following reasons, though, the Indianapolis Colts very well could be hanging their second championship banner at Lucas Oil Stadium.
1. The AFC teams ahead of the Colts took some offseason hits.
Defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore lost half their defense and Anquan Boldin, who nearly single-handedly ended the Colts' 2012 season with his performance in the Wild Card round. New England lost Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski is a big question mark coming in. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will be tough again in the AFC North, but neither looks as strong as the Colts on paper. In the division, the Colts proved last year that they can beat Houston when it counts.
Only the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos look to be a team with superior talent to the Colts. That's why their week seven meeting in Indianapolis is so important. It could be the tie-breaker that determines who has home field in the AFC Championship game.
2. The Colts have greatly improved their defense up the middle.
The signing of S LaRon Landry and NT Aubrayo Franklin along with the return from injury of NT Josh Chapman should pay huge dividends for the Colts' defense in 2013. To put it bluntly, the Colts were not at all solid in the middle of their defense in 2012. That often resulted in a lot of one on one mismatches in the secondary and outside linebackers and defensive ends having to cheat in to compensate, which in turn exposed the edge. These three additions should help firm up the Colts against the run and help protect against big, over-the-top plays.
3. The Colts improved their offensive line.
The patchwork offensive line of 2012 did very well all things considered. Still, their ability to open holes for Vick Ballard and Donald Brown was inconsistent and Andrew Luck took far too many hits. The additions of Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas will greatly add to the strength and stability of this unit.
4. Andrew Luck has a year of seasoning under his belt.
As naturally talented as Andrew Luck is, he was still a rookie in 2012 and has some moments where his inexperience got the best of him. As Peyton Manning showed maturation between his rookie year and second season, we should expect a similar growth spurt from Luck. Working in college coordinator Pep Hamilton's offense combined with another off season of getting more familiar with his receivers and better line protection should mean fewer turnovers for Luck. That means more scoring chances for an offense Robert Mathis is already calling "high-powered."
Knock on wood, head coach Chuck Pagano won't have any recurrences of the leukemia which sidelined him for most of last year. That ordeal forged a bond, however, with this Colts team that isn't likely to go away. The principle leaders from that team remain. Last year's team showed an esprit de corps uncommon in the business-like NFL. Already, we're hearing comments from newcomers like LaRon Landry describing how they're willing to "do anything" for Pagano. Colts' opponents not only have to overcome the talent on the field, but a fighting spirit that elevates their level of play.
Will the Colts win the Super Bowl this season? It's way too early to be making that kind of prediction (although Colts 101 does predict a 12-4 record). Can they win it? Absolutely. And this year, that's not just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
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