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As they enter the third season of the Andrew Luck Era, the Indianapolis Colts are no longer capable of surprising or overachieving. Now comes real expectations.
The Colts caught everyone off guard with 11 wins in Luck's rookie season, becoming a feel-good story as the team dedicated their 2012 season to then-ailing coach Chuck Pagano. The second season was a nice followup, capped by the incredible playoff comeback win over Kansas City.
This year? It's AFC title game or bust.
Seriously. Anything less than reaching the AFC title game will be a disappointment. If the Colts win the AFC South and exit after one playoff win – as they did in a sound loss to New England last year – they'll be treading water and, ultimately, going backward.
“I think there have always been high expectations since I've been here,” Luck said. “You come into an organization that maybe missed the playoffs twice in the last 15 years, whatever it was, so people know how to win and expect to win here.”
Luck's right in one regard: The Colts have been as solid a winner as the NFL has had over the past decade, outside of the 2-14 season in 2011 that led to the No.1 pick used on Luck. But most of that time was a different team, the Peyton Manning-led team. So expectations were adjusted down when Luck and a number of young players arrived in a retooled team.
This season will be the first where expectations are firm that the Colts should win their division and should make a run to the AFC title game. It won't be easy. While the AFC doesn't necessarily have the depth of quality teams that exist in the NFC, you start with the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots as the favorites, with the Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers in that next tier. Of those, the Colts must be considered at the front of that line.
Expectations are tied to personnel, too.
The Colts have upgraded at the No.3 receiver spot, adding Hakeem Nicks. They have upgraded in the defensive line with Arthur Jones and at linebacker with D'Qwell Jackson. They return injured playmakers in receiver Reggie Wayne, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Trent Richardson says he'll be more effective, although that remains to be seen.
Is everything peachy? No, the secondary will miss Antoine Bethea (left in free agency to San Francisco) more than they might have expected. The offensive line, especially at center, is questionable. The health of defensive backs Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry remains essential.
Plus, sack artist Robert Mathis is suspended the first four games after testing positive for a banned substance.
“I love this group and I love the guys we've added to this group,” Pagano said.
Expectations increase on offense since this is the second season with coordinator Pep Hamilton. He seems to have abandoned the ridiculous notion of being a power-running or run-first offense. Maybe that was more rhetoric than reality, but he's learned that labels and words do have an effect, at least outside of the locker room.
The fact Luck can operate with the same system, and build upon it, is a plus. We'll see how much the offense has grown when the season starts. The preseason was vanilla, as should be expected. Luck's wealth of options on offense should make him a more effective quarterback in Year 3, and he was already a solid one.
The defense has to have improved play from outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, especially in Mathis' absence, and someone to step up at the safety spot. The Colts thought Delano Howell would fill that role, but his neck injury has sidelined him indefinitely. That leaves veteran Mike Adams to step in and play. Adams can be solid, but he's no youngster and he has not been as good as Bethea, so that's a concern. If Jones and Jackson play well, and Jerrell Freeman maintains his play, the defense can be improved.
Are the Colts good enough to beat the Broncos or the Patriots in an AFC title game? Today, maybe not. But the season will have twists and turns and, unfortunately, injuries and setbacks, for all teams.
By the end of January, if the Colts aren't playing one of those two big boys in the AFC title game, they'll be looking back at a disappointing season.
“The goal isn't any different than it was my previous two years here,” Luck said. “It's to go out and try to win a Super Bowl, that's why you play.”
Luck seems to thrive under such pressure. If the rest of the team follows suit, then there's no limit to how far the Colts can go.