Season preview: Close won't cut it for Indianapolis Colts

After back-to-back playoff losses to New England, the Colts are motivated to exorcise those demons and get to the Super Bowl.

They remember that confetti.

Once again, they watched their rivals celebrate the end to their NFL season.

That it was the New England Patriots who sent the Indianapolis Colts packing the past two playoffs sticks in their minds. Even more impossible to eliminate from memory is the 45-7 loss in January’s AFC Championship Game at Foxborough, Mass.

Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson toiled for nine seasons in Cleveland before signing with the Colts and earning the opportunity to compete in his first playoffs. One game away from the Super Bowl, that dream became an utter nightmare.

The Colts remember it too well.

“Yeah, it had a lot to do with how I prepared this offseason,” Jackson said. “I watched a ton of film on them and a ton of film on a few other teams that we’re starting off against this year.

“If it doesn’t drive you, then you don’t have a competitive bone in your body.”

Heaped with the hype of being legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Colts can start to distance themselves from last January when they open the season Sunday at the Buffalo Bills.

The Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions. They’re coming to Lucas Oil Stadium in a primetime statement game on Oct. 18.

But for the Colts to prove themselves worthy of their advanced billing, a defense doubted by many will have to be stronger against the elite teams. The Colts added wide receiver Andre Johnson, running back Frank Gore and rookie wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense led by three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck and Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, so scoring shouldn’t be a problem

Stopping the other guys from scoring is the key.

And a lot could be riding on if the Colts measure up this season, not just for the players but their head coach, Chuck Pagano. He declined a modest contract extension in the offseason, deciding instead of play out the final year of his current deal.

Numerous media reports have pointed to friction between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, who is not devoid of his share of criticism after a 2013 draft didn’t pan out and several key free agents — including safety LaRon Landry, right tackle Gosder Cherilus and left guard Donald Thomas — were released before the end of their contracts. And then there was the ill-fated trade for running back Trent Richardson, which wasted a first-round draft pick. He was cut loose after two ugly years this past offseason.

Colts owner Jim Irsay reiterated the annual expectation in May, that he expected his team to win at least two Super Bowls in the Luck era. He also spoke to Pagano, a former Baltimore defensive coordinator, about being more hands on with the defense this year.

Pagano admitted during offseason training activities that if the Colts couldn’t figure it out, somebody else could be coaching in Indianapolis next year.

It seems somewhat unfair to suggest a coach who has gone 33-15 in three seasons, including 3-3 in the playoffs, enters 2015 like so many of his players, with a lot to prove. 

But it would also be naive not to think that the Colts’ recent trend for blowout losses to elite teams will continue to be overlooked by the ultra-competitive Irsay. Three of their regular-season losses to New England, Pittsburgh and Dallas were by a combined 74 points.

Jackson leads a defense that could have six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Robert Mathis back in the fold as early as Sunday. Mathis missed all of last season after tearing his left Achilles tendon during a workout while serving a four-game suspension.

When Mathis last played, he led the league in sacks with 19.5 in 2013. Even at 34, the Colts are counting on him to be a difference maker, the same guy who has set a franchise record with 111 sacks.

Trent Cole, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with Philadelphia, joins the 3-4 scheme to give the Colts an even stronger pass rush. Second-year outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6.5 sacks as a rookie and outside linebacker Erik Walden had a career-high six sacks last year.

But it still comes down to how the Colts stop the run against the best teams. Irsay has said the Colts needed to be more physical and implied that the January train wreck had a lot to do with being out-schemed — the Patriots added an extra offensive lineman and ran over the Colts for 177 yards rushing and three scores.

Jackson and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman will have help in stuffing the run from inside linebacker Nate Irving, also signed in free agency, and inside linebacker Sio Moore, acquired in a recent trade from Oakland.

Defensive end Kendall Langford also signed with the Colts to provide a veteran presence on a defensive line that couldn’t be younger. Until defensive lineman Billy Winn was acquired from Cleveland on Friday, the Colts didn’t have another D-line player who had started a game other than Langford, who hasn’t missed a game in 112 appearances, including 90 starts.

On a roster with 10 rookies, Grigson and Pagano have expressed confidence in going with the youth movement. Rookie Henry Anderson is expected to start at defensive tackle, a hole vacated by the loss of Arthur Jones to a season-ending ankle injury. Rookie nose tackle David Parry also starts after the previous year’s starter, Josh Chapman, was among final cuts.

The loss of Jones was incredibly deflating, considering the Colts signed him a year ago to a $33-million contract and he has yet to stay healthy and prove to be the key component expected. But even without him, the expectations don’t change.

A lot of shortcomings can be masked behind the brilliance of a great quarterback. Luck has been everything the Colts could hope for in three seasons. He’s set numerous NFL records for the start of a career and led the league with 40 TD passes last season.

Gore and Johnson chose the Colts because they thought playing with Luck gave them the best chance at a Super Bowl ring.

Luck has his best supporting cast, provided an offensive line that shuffled through 11 different starting combinations last season can give the star passer enough time. Jack Mewhort moved to right tackle from left guard. Lance Louis has been plugged in at left guard. Free-agent addition Todd Herremans takes over at right guard.

The schedule appears kind, considering two of what should be the three toughest challenges are at home with Denver and New England visiting Indianapolis. Aside from Sunday at Buffalo, the most daunting road test appears to be at Pittsburgh.

When Irsay emerged from a dejected Colts locker room after that playoff loss at New England in January, the owner assured, “We’re close.”

The comment couldn’t have seemed more detached from reality considering that 38-point loss. The Patriots were saddled with DeflateGate for the offseason while the Colts were the ones who couldn’t have been more deflated.

How close the Colts have come to the Patriots and any of the other Super Bowl contenders is about to be determined.

Thing is, close isn’t enough. Not for this team.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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