Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This deal isn't done yet.
The Colts still need one more good performance at home on Sunday to make the playoffs. After the way this season has gone, it would be insane to take anything for granted. The way things have gone, Reggie Wayne's left arm could fall off at practice on Friday. There's nothing easy about beating a division rival at home with a playoff berth on the line. These chickens haven't hatched and no one is counting them yet. (now that I've successfully applied my anti-jinx protection, let's move along shall we?)
After the Dallas game, this team sat at 6-6 needing to win four consecutive games to make the playoffs. Ignoring for a moment that last night's game wasn't really a must win, let's take a moment to appreciate the fact that three weeks later, the Colts have ripped off three of them, two on the road.
I've never been a 'Super Bowl or Bust!" guy. I remember the lean years too well. I know that years like 2008 need to be celebrated in context. Given everything that's happened to this team this year, it's amazing that they are actually just a few bad breaks away from competing for a bye. More to the point, they are one win away from tying the NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances at 9 and would be more than halfway to the 49ers record 16 straight 10 win seasons. A season full of adversity that pays off in a home playoff game? I'll take it. While there is still a credible path to the Super Bowl for the Colts that doesn't require any herculean upsets (NYJ, @Balt, Pitt), I'll be plenty happy with the 2011 Colts even without a trip to Dallas.
Even though the Colts didn't technically need to beat the Raiders, they did so anyway. This team hasn't shied away from anything this season. They haven't quit. They haven't made excuses. You get the feeling that internally, the team feels like a snake in the grass. They have the second highest scoring offense in the NFL. The league's best team, the Patriots, have one of the great offenses ever, but also a terrible defense. They are also scared to death of a rematch with Manning. Is it a long shot? Yes. Could it happen? Yeah, it could.
Suddenly, at the end of it all, this team has figured out how to defend the run again. Suddenly, every 220 lb back who comes down the pike isn't throwing fear into our hearts. There are still problems on defense, mostly caused by a seriously decimated secondary, but it's encouraging to see. Dwight Freeney has played like a man possessed all season, and while it's been a modest year for him sack wise (one yesterday takes him to 9 for the season), he's been a force for the last several weeks.
The return of the run game certainly challenges the popular notion that Bill Polian did a horrible job constructing this offensive line. It's amazing what can happen when good running backs start to get healthy. It's shocking the results when you stop giving carries to a guy from the practice squad. When your big blocking tight end finally heals up, suddenly there are actual holes to run through. The last two games, against admittedly suspect defenses, the Colts have used the run as more than just a decoy. Once again, suggesting that maybe injuries really were to blame after all.
As we look at this season (nearly) saved, that's the one lesson we can take away. Injuries aren't an excuse. No one feels sorry for you just because guys are hurt. However, they are a valid reason. It is fair to grade coaches and front office staff on a curve when forced to work with one hand tied behind their back. Everything doesn't have to be a sign that Manning is old or hurt or that the sky is falling or the window closing. Sometimes you just have trouble winning because you lost too many good players. Injuries are never an excuse. But yeah, they are a reason.
Three straight playoff games have come and gone. I'd love to see this team win two or three (or five) more.
- Special teams are a problem, and they aren't going to get better this year. This isn't about coaching or organizational philosophy. It's about talent level. Don't look for a bounce back this year.
- Dom Rhodes is going to go down as an all time favorite in Indianapolis. That man should never have to buy his own drinks in Indy even again. As great as it was to see him pile up 98 yards, nothing did my heart as good as Addai's strong early start. When he burst through to score the tying touchdown, it was a moment of sheer relief for me. This team has missed him.
- White and Tamme do some things well. They've been ok in a pinch. They are NOT Collie and Clark. Not by a long-shot.
- Manning continues to have one of the odd seasons of his career. He leads the league in Yards and is second in touchdowns. He's having virtually the same year as Drew Brees (with fewer picks). Given that the Indy WRs lead the league in drops, he's probably having a virtually identical season to his 2009 season, only having to throw too many times to be quite as efficient (his INT rate was higher last year!). Still, both picks yesterday were stupid throws (though one was a bit unlucky). The picks seem to be the story of 2010 when people talk about Peyton, but the numbers indicate the story should be how many times a game he's asked to throw the ball. Hopefully, the return of the run game should help that.
- That bootleg to ice the game was glorious. Indy breaks it out every four or five years, and it's always a sight to behold.
- Yesterday was some of the best run blocking by Charlie Johnson in three years.
- A healthy Gary Brackett makes a big difference for this defense.
- Another 59 yard field goal? Seriously? I mean...seriously?
- Oakland has one of the best pass rushing lines in football. No sacks.
- Caldwell has coached the last three games as conservatively as humanly possible. His handling of the next to last drive of the game was appalling. I realize that he screwed up the Super Bowl by having Stover kick a field goal he wasn't capable of hitting (no FGs longer than 48 yards in four years), and that I've argued a punt would have been better. The situation yesterday was not the same. First, we need to know if AV can hit a 50 yard field goal when it counts, so why not let him try in a pressure situation where if he misses it doesn't kill you? Second, it was only fourth and nine, so going for the first down was entirely plausible. Punting (for a net of 15 yards) made no sense. Come playoff time, he's going to have to realize that he doesn't have the better team. When you are out matched, you have to be more aggressive and steal extra downs. Over conservative coaching will not get it done this posteason. He's got to wake up to that fact now.
- I mentioned this on Twitter last night, but there is an interesting story in Dungy's autobiography, Quiet Strength. In it he talks about his final season in Tampa. The Bucs were 9-6 and playing at Philly. They had to play Philly the next week in the playoffs anyway, as the matchups were set. Dungy had been promised an extra year by the Glazers, so he rightly didn't try to win the meaningless final game of the season. The GM warned him, "It's a lot harder to fire a coach with 10 wins than with 9". Tony didn't understand the context because he had been assured he was getting another season. Sure enough, the Glazers fired him. Don't think that Caldwell (who isn't on the hot seat) doesn't realize the difference between a 9 and a 10 win season.
- One more note on the collapse of the Jags. There is no evidence they have improved over last year's 7 win team. Their defense, for all the talk about youth and improvement, is a field goal a game WORSE than last year. They are 8 forced turnovers behind last year. They are about a field goal a game better on offense, but their turnovers are up. Last year, they were "a 5.5 win team". This year, with a game to go, they are "5.9 win team". The Jags should not be considered any kind of favorites or contenders for next year, no matter what happens this weekend. They are a fraudulent team who stole some games on fluky plays. I've been steadfast on that for weeks.