Jan 11, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) looks to pass during the fourth quarter of the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis Colts: Why they should be Super Bowl favorites

How good is it to be an Indianapolis Colts fan?

Put it this way: I often have to pinch myself, just to be sure I’m not dreaming.

Of course, I’m not — it’s just hard to believe that the Colts have now achieved back-to-back 11-win seasons, a feat that seems unspectacular until you consider the circumstances.

Indy is a little more than two years removed from releasing the greatest regular season quarterback ever. That should have warranted a long, slow rebuilding process. Right?

Sure. Only there was one problem: the Colts didn’t get the memo and, instead of suffering, have hardly missed a beat since parting ways with Peyton Manning, with whom they won at least 10 games 11 times in 12 seasons from 1999 through 2010.

And now, at the risk of being labeled a homer, I believe the Colts will walk away next February as Super Bowl XLIX champions.

Yes, the Colts, who in the second half of last season suffered a 38-8 loss to the Rams, a 40-11 loss to the Cardinals, and a 42-28 loss to the Bengals that wasn’t even that close. Yes, the Colts, who fell behind 38-10 to Andy Reid’s Chiefs in the Wild Card round and needed an all-time great comeback to advance. And yes, the Colts, who were run off the field by LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots, 43-22, in Foxboro in the Divisional round.

Here’s my case: I believe the 2014 Colts will resemble the 2013 Colts that we saw from Week 3 through Week 7 a lot more than they will the 2013 Colts from Week 9 forward.

If you need reminding, the Colts required a couple of warmup weeks last season — Weeks 1 and 2, when they barely beat the Raiders at home and lost at home to the Dolphins — before ultimately hitting their stride. But once they hit their peak, they really hit it — I’ve frequently argued that they were the best team in the National Football League from late September until late October.

Jun 17, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass during minicamp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It started with a Week 3 drubbing of the 49ers (27-7, at Candlestick Park no less) and ended with a thrilling 39-33 win over the Broncos in Manning’s return to Indianapolis, with a come-from-behind win against the visiting and eventual-Super Bowl champion Seahawks sandwiched in between.

In a five week span, the Colts beat the NFL’s three best teams. Many, myself included, were beginning to wonder if the Colts were — dare I say it — the favorites to get to Super Bowl XLVIII.

But the Colts never were the same after Week 7. They finished 11-5 but had just one impressive victory in their final nine games — a 23-7 manhandling of the Chiefs at Arrowhead in Week 16. Other than that, they had to overcome a 21-point deficit just to beat the Texans in Week 9; they were blown out three times (as I previously mentioned); they were twice taken to the wire by the Titans; and they beat the Texans at home (as expected) and the Jaguars at home (as expected).

So how did a team that was so good for a month regress to being so mediocre for the season’s final two months?

I struggled with that question long into the offseason.

Eventually, I was able to boil it down to one reason: Reggie Wayne’s torn ACL, suffered in the Week 7 win against Denver.

Aside from still being one of the NFL’s very best wide receivers, understand that Reggie Wayne is 1) the heart and soul of the Colts and 2) Andrew Luck’s securest of security blankets.

The vocal leader on the team, Reggie Wayne is looked up to by every player in the Colts’ locker room.

“We’re a young team, and if you watch Reggie, he’s been doing the same thing for years. For the young guys coming up, he’s a great guy to watch, to see how to do it the right way. You know going against Reggie every day in practice, he’s teaching me stuff all the time. He’ll say, ‘I read this or that off of you,” cornerback Jerraud Powers, now with the Arizona Cardinals, told the Associated Press in 2012.

Even Luck has admitted that Wayne is the Colts’ leader. “I still defer to Reggie as the leader of our offense,” he told Mike & Mike last August. Losing Reggie’s on-field presence in 2013 was nothing short of a disaster.

But maybe more important to Luck than Reggie’s leadership is his reliability as a wide receiver.

According to ESPN’s Mike Wells, Wayne — from the start of 2012 until he tore his ACL in 2013 — was responsible for 35 percent of Indy’s first downs gained through the air and for 34 percent of Indy’s third-down receptions.

Through Week 6 (Reggie’s final full game) in 2013, the Colts had converted on 50 percent of their third-down tries — good for second-best in the league. By the end of the regular season, they had converted on just 37.56% of third-downs — a clear drop off (all the way down to 15th-best) without Reggie.

Long story short: The Colts missed Reggie Wayne last season about as badly as a team can miss a non-quarterback.

But now, nine months removed from tearing his ACL, Wayne is back and is a full participant at Colts camp.

Even better: it sounds as if he’s playing like the Reggie Wayne of old. Mike Wells, on site at Anderson University, wrote earlier this week that “Wayne looked like the player who terrorized defenses for many years prior to tearing his ACL last October.”

Conventional wisdom also says that Reggie’s quarterback, who progressed greatly from his rookie season in 2012 to his sophomore season in 2013, will only get better in 2014.

For as good as Andrew Luck was as a rookie, he had his struggles, which included throwing 18 interceptions, losing five fumbles, and completing just 54.1 percent of his throws. A season later, the game seemed to slow down tremendously for him — he threw nine fewer interceptions, lost four fewer fumbles, and completed better than 60 percent of his throws in 2013, all of which was against much stiffer competition.

Luck, with two full seasons under his belt, should only continue on that upward trend in 2014. At least, that’s what Wayne thinks.

“His leadership each year gets better and better, along with his game. One thing that I love about him is that he hasn’t changed. He came in loving the game of football, wanting to be the best, wanting to do everything he can to help the team win and he’s still the same way,” the wideout told reporters on Thursday.

If nothing else, the pressure on Luck will be heavily reduced from what it was in 2012 and 2013, when — aside from Wayne for a season-and-a-half and T.Y. Hilton in spurts last season — he had little to resemble a supporting cast on offense and was asked to carry an unfair load, especially for a young quarterback. That’s because, barring many injuries, Luck will have a good deal of help this season.

Jul 24, 2014; Anderson, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano coaches on the field during training camp at Anderson University. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to Wayne, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Ahmad Bradshaw — two players who have been very productive when healthy — are both returning from season-ending injuries in 2013. The Colts also drafted Jack Mewhort, an offensive lineman from Ohio State, in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and took Donte Moncrief, a receiver from Ole Miss, in the third round.

But Indy’s biggest offseason splash came in free agency. The Colts signed wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to a one-year deal in March. Nicks, I remind you, is only 26 years old and had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2010 and 2011. Last season, he had 896 yards receiving in 15 games — not bad at all, considering that his quarterback (Eli Manning) was in the midst of throwing a league-high 27 interceptions to just 18 touchdowns.

The Colts will now have a three-headed monster (if T.Y. Hilton can at all resemble the T.Y. Hilton I watched in the playoffs) at wide receiver, a good duo at tight end (Coby Fleener and Allen), and two potentially-productive running backs (Bradshaw and Trent Richardson, entering his first full season with the Colts) in the backfield.

Translation: the perfect weapons for a rising superstar like Luck.

Ryan Grigson, the Colts general manager, also used the offseason to bolster what was the league’s 20th-ranked defense in 2013. He signed safety Mike Adams, defensive end Arthur Jones, and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson — the league’s seventh-leading tackler in 2013.

Finally, a team worthy of Andrew Luck will surround Andrew Luck.

As of today, we are about a month away from the NFL’s regular season kickoff. To most, the early favorites in the AFC are — who else? — Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Tom Brady’s Patriots. If it’s not either of those two teams getting the media’s attention, it’s the Cleveland Browns, the new home of Johnny Manziel.

But quietly lurking in the background are the Colts, with a revamped roster, a healthy Reggie Wayne, and a quarterback who might be on the verge of an MVP season.

Just remember, you heard it here first. Here come the Colts.

Tags: Andrew Luck Hakeem Nicks Indianapolis Colts NFL Reggie Wayne

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