If defense still wins championships in the NFL, the Colts may not quite be ready for the Promised Land in 2014. With the #1 yardage and points scored offense in the league, the only fetters on the Colts is a below average defense. That has not stopped them from going 6-3 into their bye week, good for a 2 game lead over the improved Texans.
The Colts are getting it done on the ground; with Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson forming a fairly impressive thunder and more thunder pair of rushers. Luck has also chipped in some crucial rushing yards, too. It is in the passing game though that the Colts are putting on a clinic week in and week out. 7 different players have at least 20 receptions. Leading the team is rising star T.Y. Hilton and 36 year old Reggie Wayne. Luck also has plenty of options in the red zone and for safety valve purposes; Larry Allen, Coby Fleener and Bradshaw all have over 250 receiving yards and at least 4 receiving TD’s.
If Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky can coax some better performance out of the defense, this will be a dangerous team in January. Even if the defense stays suspect, the Colts offense enables them to make plenty of noise in the modern NFL. Just ask the Chiefs.
What to Watch For
Seeding. The Colts play against only 3 teams with winning records out of their last 7 games this season. Two of those are against potential playoffs rivals; the Patriots and the Browns (yes the Browns). A #1 playoff seeding is certainly possible with a win over New England and a hiccup or two from Denver. Even the win over New England makes a first round bye more likely.
In the October 26 loss at the hands of the Steelers, the two teams combined for 1,087 yards of total offense, 85 points, 60 first downs, and 11 Touchdowns. The Colts permitting the Steelers to score 51 points, their worst defensive performance of the year, happened exactly one week after shutting out the Bengals while winning 27-0. Anyone that thinks they can predict what happens in this league from one week to the next is delusional.
Houston started off 3-1 and looked like they might give the Colts a run for their money this season. They have gone 1-4 since then to stand at 4-5 going into their bye week. When you are coming off of 2 win season, this is improvement. This team still has issues on both sides of the ball, but there are some nice pieces here to build on.
It is likely that one of those pieces will NOT be caretaker QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is in the first year of a two year 7.25 Mil deal with 4 of that guaranteed. This means that the bearded one can be released, kept to tutor a drafted QB, or even extended this year or next if some fit of insanity possesses the Houston front office. Trying to lure a high priced free agent QB or RB to the home of NASA will probably not be an option, with team handing JJ Watt an armored truck full of money last off-season.
What to Watch For
Growth. Bill O’Brien and the front office need to see what they have from Jadeveon Clowney, and the other guys added in 2014. Based upon the choices made after the coaching change, the Texans are trying to build a defense to beat the Colts twice a year. The other option was to try building an offense that could keep up with or exceed what Indy has. Not going that direction was probably the wise move.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the only Harvard graduate to start an NFL game at QB. He reportedly scored 48 out of 50 in 9 minutes on the Wunderlich test, which is the highest score ever for any QB prospect to take the test. Since coming into the NFL in 2005, he has played for 5 teams: the Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, and Texans. His career record is 35-59-1.
Charger fans were concerned about losing the coach that re-tooled the Bolts offense and if asked, many would probably admit to missing him. Whisenhunt, now in his first year back in the Head Coaching seat at Tennessee would probably (privately) admit to missing Philip Rivers. Whisenhunt was able to help the Chargers learn that PR is still The Man. This year, he found out for himself that Jake Locker is NOT the man. With ineffective QB play from Locker and then by Whitehurst, Whisenhunt decided to start Zach Mettenberger after week 7. Young Zach’s welcome to the NFL came against the Texans and the Ravens. Both were losses, which extended the Titans record to a dismal 2-7.
Whisenhunt had to have some idea what he was getting into and it probably did not bother him too much. After all, when he arrived at Arizona in 2007, that team was in pretty bad shape too. Coach Whiz though, had to guess that Locker was far less to work with than even the way over the hill Kurt Warner he had in Tempe. Still, it is likely that he has a few years to get the Titans back to the playoffs, which has not happened since 2008.
What to Watch For
Answers. Can Mettenberger be a franchise QB? Is Bishop Sankey a big gun, every down RB? Are there any play-makers on the roster besides Kendall Wright? Does the offensive line need help? Who can play on the defense? Who is going to keep giving max effort even into a November and December with no hope of making the playoffs? Who wants to be in Nashville and help turn the franchise around?
Bishop Sankey, thought to be one of the best backs selected in the 2014 draft, was on the bench for most of September, while the Titans running game went nowhere with Shon Green and Dexter McCluster. Coach Whiz told the Nashville media covering the team that Sankey would not play until he "figured out the details of playing running back in the NFL". When pressed about the details, Whiz replied with "footwork, mostly". This prompted some of the writers covering the team to suggest that if footwork was that important to Ken Whisenhunt, he start scouting "Dancing With the Stars" for the 2015 draft or just draft Fred Astair.
Gus Bradley may be a good coach, but nothing going on in Jacksonville this season can tell us that one way or the other. He had this team playing respectable football at the end of 2013 and hopes were high among the few remaining fans in North East Florida that the team would improve in 2014. That has not happened. It is difficult to pin the regression of this team on Bradley. Going into the game against Dallas in week 10 of the season, the Jaguars had 13 players on IR and another 5 players out for at least that game and in the case of Andre Branch, maybe the rest of the year. The players on the IR are also not all back-ups or role players. That list includes the team’s best linebacker, a starting receiver, starting tight end, the team’s best safety, and a starting defensive lineman.
As if that were not enough, you are throwing a rookie QB out there without an NFL caliber team around him, due to the injuries. Blake Bortles has the athletic tools to be a franchise QB, but we may not know that for sure this year. What we do know is that the Jags are 1-9, and have some tough games for the last 6 of the season after their bye next week. Jacksonville may be lucky to win another 2 games this year and will certainly be drafting near the top of each round once again next spring.
What to Watch For
Buy-in. Can Bradley keep his team engaged, prepared, and competitive for the last 6 games of 2014? How will the players respond to the continuous losses, which are starting to get lopsided again? The situation this season may actually have some benefit for the next 2-4 years; there are players that are getting experience and reps that were supposed to still be developing and learning without playing much. If Coach Bradley can communicate the vision of going into 2015 with a deeper, more experienced roster of players that have learned on the job and are ready to win sooner, rather than later, this team can play with some hope.
Last season, the local CBS affiliates carrying the game as required by NFL broadcast rules and the Network Contracts, were scrolling apologies to the Jacksonville area viewers for being "forced" by the broadcast rules to stay with their home game. There has been open speculation that the Jaguars may end up being the NFL’s London franchise. They have certainly made that trip often enough already.