If you asked me today, “Which playoff team in the AFC has the best chance for improvement?” My answer would be simple, the Indianapolis Colts. Perhaps I’m biased in this instance, but I feel this way for one reason, and for one reason alone. Simply put, Andrew Luck. In a conference that has an offensive juggernaut in the Denver Broncos and a seemingly ageless team that will never go away, the New England Patriots, the Colts are not the best team on paper, yet they stand to have the greatest chance for improvement.
Andrew Luck had a fine 2013 season in his second year as a pro. He posted a QB rating of 87.0, and threw for 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He’s already made 2 Pro-Bowls in his already promising young career. If you asked the NFL’s 32 GM’s, who they would take if they could have a franchise QB for the next decade, maybe a few renegades take last year’s Super Bowl Champion QB, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, but the overwhelming majority take Andrew Luck. They take him easily. No questions asked.
That being said, Andrew Luck is still not yet in truly elite QB company. When NFL observers think of the truly elite, the names they immediately rattle off are the following: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Luck is in the upper echelon, but he’s more in the “Philip Rivers’ company”, than the cream of the crop at this stage. That’s not a knock on Rivers either, who’s an exceptional, winning QB. However, if Luck is to fulfill his true NFL destiny, the vision NFL experts have prognosticated from the beginning, he’ll eventually make the jump to this elite tier. For me, it’s not an issue of “if”, but “when”. Sooner rather than later.
Is 2014 the year? This remains to be seen. It’s as good of a bet as any though with veterans Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks, and now third year young receiving standout T.Y. Hilton. The year where wide receivers allegedly “take off” in the football world in Hilton’s case. The young tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, are no longer “fresh meat”, rather they have a few training camps under their belt.
Luck was a Pro-Bowler in 2013, yet only ranked 12th among all QB’s by ProFootballFocus.com. This was a ranking behind the likes including QB’s: Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matthew Stafford. No offense to any of the aforementioned, who are all fine starting QB’s, but I’d be shocked if Luck is not ultimately better than all of them when it’s all said and done. This leads me to believe that not only can Luck improve, he still stands to have a lot of room for improvement and growth. In a league that is centered and driven upon QB play, the Colts have had a very good one, who has yet to make his anticipated jump to truly elite.
Everyone knows the Broncos and to a slightly lesser extent, the Patriots are the toast of the AFC. The additions of DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware, S TJ Ward, and DB Aqib Talib will almost certainly help the Denver Broncos to some positive degree. Likewise, freshly signed shutdown DB, Darrelle Revis, and a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Vince Wilfork will help our nemesis, the New England Patriots. However, Manning and Brady aren’t getting any younger, they aren’t getting any better. Those teams are what they are, and what they are today. Great teams, but I don’t see either one getting considerably better. Not at this stage of the game anyways.
Two other playoff teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, are marked by strong defenses and running games. Both are consistent recipes for success. Yet, when push comes to shove, does anyone think Alex Smith and Andy Dalton respectively are good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl? Color me skeptical. Both of these teams are and will remain very good, but I don’t see them making a considerable jump in 2014. They are the same tough, hard-nosed teams we saw in 2013, just with a few minor tweaks.
The last remaining playoff team, the San Diego Chargers, are led by the previously mentioned Philip Rivers. While they are a very good team as well, and certainly remain a thorn in the Colts’ side, I haven’t seen a move or acquisition that makes me say “wow”. Rivers is very much in the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady mold, he is what he is today. While he’s very good, he’s not going to get better, if at all.
The Colts stand for the best chance for improvement among last year’s playoff teams because Luck stands for the greatest chance for improvement. That may be oversimplifying things, but I think the difference between a good team and a great one is usually based on QB play (although you could make the argument for an all-time great defense too). Luck is the most likely QB in the National Football League to make that next jump, and that’s why Colts fans, I think the Colts stand to as well. Here’s to keeping our fingers crossed.