The consensus heading into the season was for the Colts to battle with the Texans for last place in the AFC South. With two sets of rookie head coaches and quarterbacks leading the charge, it’s fair to say those initial projections were understandable. After a 2-1 start for Indianapolis, have expectations changed? Sebastian Bench reflects:
You can hear something peculiar if you listen very carefully around Indianapolis these days. Something not heard in these parts for quite some time. You can hear optimism, cautious optimism certainly, but optimism just the same.
You could argue that it’s been a year since that optimism was felt in Indianapolis. The team’s surprise Week 3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs created what would turn out to be badly misplaced optimism. There was a little hope after the Colts beat the Raiders for their only victory under Jeff Saturday, but by that point, the fanbase had already been too beaten down to be truly optimistic.
Anyone remember when Colts owned AFC South? After week 3, they're 2-1, good for sole possession of division.
*Last time they had sole possession: wk 8 of 2019 (Colts 5-2, Texans 5-3)
*Last time sole possession when teams played same # games: wk 7 of '15 (Colts 3-4, Texans 2-5).
— Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) September 26, 2023
Today is different. Indianapolis sits alone atop the AFC South (get the banners ready), a feat they hadn’t achieved since 2019. They’re fresh off a gutsy win against a genuine playoff contender in the Baltimore Ravens. A win that follows a dominant win against the Texans and a narrow loss to a Jaguars team that was expected to canter to the division title.
Before this season started, I thought that a 7-10 record would make this a successful Colts campaign. Although more than any year in recent memory, this year was going to be less about Indianapolis improving their win/loss record and more about tangible progress. That being said, a 7-10 record would have been a significant improvement on the disaster that was 2022. It would also have boded well for Richardson’s development, Steichen’s potential as head coach, and the implementation of Steichen and Cooter’s new offensive scheme.
Following the victory over the Ravens, I’ve been forced to reset my expectations for Indianapolis this year. I suspect I’m not the only one. But how high should our renewed expectations be?
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) September 25, 2023
The immediate future for Indianapolis certainly gives reason to be optimistic. After the Rams this weekend, the Colts play the Titans, Jaguars, Browns, Saints and Panthers. Now I certainly don’t expect them to win all those games, but I do think there’s a real possibility Indianapolis finds itself at 6-3 after this stretch.
I expect the Colts to beat the Rams on Sunday and they really should beat the Titans and the 0-3 Panthers. The New Orleans Saints are beatable, especially if Derek Carr is still injured, but that could go either way. I’d put the Jaguars and Browns as favorites against the Colts, but certainly, neither team looks invincible right now.
If Indianapolis does find itself at 6-3 after nine games, how surprised should we be? Probably not as surprised as we’d likely end up being. Like many, I was bullish about the Colts’ prospects in 2022, buoyed by the signings of Ryan, Ngakoue, and Gilmore in free agency. I, and many others were made to look foolish by the Colts’ performances and results.
— Indianapolis Colts on SI.com (@ColtMaven) September 25, 2023
But it appears as if we’ve all overreacted to overrating Indianapolis last year by underestimating them now. Last season was an unmitigated disaster, but we shouldn’t forget that this was a playoff team in 2020 and should have been again in 2021. The heart of those rosters (Nelson, Leonard, Buckner, et al) remains at the heart of the team today. They have been joined since 2020 by several draft picks with great potential.
Shane Steichen is making an instant impact as Head Coach. The results speak for themselves, but perhaps just as impressive is that the Colts don’t look outcoached on Sundays and the fact accountability has become more than a press conference buzzword.
There has been clear progress in the areas most to blame in 2022. The Offensive Line that was dire for the first half of 2022 appears to be performing closer to expectations this year. Injuries to Richardson have meant we haven’t yet seen the continuity at Quarterback we were hoping for, but Richardson and Minshew both look better than Ryan, Foles, and Ehlinger looked in 2022. Richardson has also shown promising signs he can be the long-term solution the team has craved since 2019.
— Colts Militia (@coltsmilitia_) September 27, 2023
We certainly don’t yet know how good this Indianapolis team is, but they appear to be much better than last year’s trash fire. And in a weak division, they could be good enough to make the playoffs. Especially as you’d expect a team with a rookie QB, new Head Coach and new Offensive Coordinator to improve as the year progresses as new concepts are implemented and teammates gel.
Before the season started, I expected the Jaguars to canter to the division title. The Titans looked to be mired in the kind of no mans land the Colts have known all too well in recent years. Whilst the Texans looked primed to make significant progress, but not enough to challenge for the title (as I expected of the Colts).
Jacksonville could certainly still win the AFC South, but they look far more vulnerable than we expected. Fans across the league were understandably impressed by Trevor Lawrence at the back end of last season and believed he could make them one of the AFC’s best teams.
CJ vs Trevor Lawrence 1st head to head.
The rookie outshined the former 1st overall pick. We got us a QB🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/nRQPUx0IaP
— HT (@HTsportsfan_) September 24, 2023
But a hard-fought victory over Indianapolis was followed by a lackluster loss to the Chiefs and a shocking defeat by the Texans. Might Jacksonville still be the Jaguars we’ve known for so long? You don’t get to have as many top-10 draft picks in a decade as the Jags have had without a lot of bad drafting. Trevor Lawrence was the pick they simply couldn’t get wrong, but Travon Walker looks like a bust as a number-one pick; especially compared to Aiden Hutchinson. Is this Jaguars roster that much better than the team that earned that 2021 first-overall pick? Is it a better roster than the Colts?
We’ll find the answer to those questions over the next few months, but certainly, Jacksonville seems much more vulnerable than I expected. If they are beatable, Indianapolis looks best placed to beat them to win the AFC South. The Titans would appear to have a toothless offense if their loss to the Browns (who do boast a very impressive defense) is anything to go by. Texans’ fans have reasons to be optimistic, namely CJ Stroud and Tank Dell, but I don’t think they’re as ready to challenge for the division as the Colts appear to be.
At this stage, I think Indianapolis should be aiming to secure a winning record and make a real run at making the playoffs. They should be considered a dark horse to win the AFC South, with Jacksonville still the favorites; at least for the time being. If the Colts have the opportunity down the stretch to win the division, they should do all they can to take it. But playoffs or not, if Indianapolis does finish with a winning record, then Irsay, Ballard, and Steichen should be very pleased with their progress.
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