There wasn't a nicer surprise last season in the NFL than the Colts. With their head coach recovering from cancer treatments, Indy won 11 games and made the playoffs for the first time without Peyton Manning since 1996.
First-year quarterback Andrew Luck was the X-factor for the Colts, setting a rookie record for passing yards with 4,374. Bruce Arians won AP Coach of the Year in the absence of head coach Chuck Pagano, who returns to the team in 2013. This team is "Chuck" full of storylines.
3 steps to success
1. Andrew Luck improves behind a revitalized offensive line
Expectations could not have been higher for Andrew Luck coming into the 2012 season. As the first-overall pick who (essentially) replaced Peyton Manning, Luck led the Colts to the playoffs in his rookie season while amassing over 4,000 yards. But efficiency wasn't the name of the game for the Colts' passing attack, as Luck averaged just 7.0 yards per attempt, a full yard lower than fellow rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
Much of this was due to holes in the Colts' offensive line, which allowed Luck to be sacked 41 times, good enough for fourth in the NFL in 2012. To remedy this, the Colts acquired four new offensive linemen through free agency and the draft. They signed five-year veteran Gosder Cherilous from Detroit and Donald Thomas, who spent the last two years in New England. WIth their second and third-round picks, Indy took guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes.
With improved protection, Luck should be able to build on what was already an impressive rookie season. I wouldn't be surprised if Luck makes his second-straight Pro Bowl in 2013, joining Dan Marino as the only other quarterback to do so in his first two seasons.
2. Use Ahmad Bradshaw for a more balanced offensive attack
With Vick Ballard and Donald Brown averaging just 3.9 yards per carry each, the Colts finished 22nd in the league in rushing yards. But throwing former Giants back Ahmad Bradshaw into the mix, Indy should be able to stretch the front seven of opposing defenses.
A regular in New York's offense since 2009, Bradshaw has amassed 5,319 yards from scrimmage in his career. Much of his value comes from the passing game, with 20 or more receptions in every season in which he was a full-time player. Ballard has shown downhill running ability and Donald Brown has had a a few relevant moments, so expect the Colts to attempt fewer than the 628 passes they threw in 2012.
3. Replace Dwight Freeney
Along with Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney was a staple of Indianapolis' successful run through the oughts. Now that Freeney calls San Diego home, the Colts will need an outside pass rusher in a dropback-happy league.
With their first pick in the draft, Indy selected Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner. Werner was ACC Player of the Year in 2012 and was a unanimous All-American selection for the Seminoles. He dazzled in his senior season with 13 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, and could provide an upfield presence for a team that lost their stud defensive end.
3 feats toward failure
1) Relying on fourth quarter comebacks
One of the Colts' talents as a team last year was winning close games. Andrew Luck is credited with seven game-winning drives, meaning more than half of the Colts' 11 wins in 2012 were decided late in the fourth quarter. Even if Indy continues to be good in the fourth quarter, odds are they will end up on the wrong side of a few more thrilling finishes.
2) Houston looms
With their Big Three on offense intact, the Texans should be worthy adversaries for the Colts in 2013. After winning the division with a 12-4 record, the Texans look to improve for the third-straight season. All-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt said he wasn't fully healthy last year, which is just plain ridiculous considering the season he had.
The Colts were 1-1 against Houston last year, beating them in a Week 17 finale that didn't have any impact on the division race.
3) Avoid the Pythagorean dilemma
Aside from wins, the Colts didn't fare well by even the most basic of metrics. Their point differential in 2012 was -30, which Football Outsiders estimates is the mark of a team that should expect to win 7.2 games. They were what some might call "lucky," winning a slew of close games and being blown out in others. But their ability to score and prevent other teams from scoring will be -- wait for it -- crucial to winning games in 2013.
This season will not be considered a success unless the Colts make the playoffs, an expectation the fanbase has not had since Manning's final healthy season in blue and white. Chuck Pagano's story is one of the most fascinating in all of sports, and it won't just be Colts fans wishing the team well this season.
The Colts will have a difficult time replicating their 2012 success, having overachieved their way to a Wild Card berth with a rookie quarterback and a shaky defense. But with the further development of Luck and the addition of linemen on both sides of the ball, there is no reason the Colts can't be fringe contenders who have a shot at a second-straight playoff run.