Analysis: Daunting challenge awaits Colts

Four of the next five foes are unbeaten, beginning with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on Oct. 18.

Savor the flavor of the Indianapolis Colts’ three-game winning streak of a feast on AFC South Division foes because the next five games will define this season.

Yeah, time for a reality check.

Whether it’s Andrew Luck or Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, the Colts (3-2) are about to embark on a grueling schedule stretch. Four of the next five opponents are unbeaten. Those three vanquished AFC South teams have combined for just three wins. The four unblemished foes are a combined 15-0.

And you know who comes next. The few Colts players who were interviewed Friday in the locker room didn’t want to say the “P” word. They know who’s on the schedule when they get back from a weekend off.

The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. (Insert cringe.)

If you’re not a bit uneasy about the Patriots visiting Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 18, well, you haven’t been paying attention. The Colts have yet to come close in four losses to those guys, lopsided outcomes by an average of 29 points the previous three years.

The Colts have shown a modest measure of resiliency to bounce back from two double-digit losses to start the season. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to endure in the next month and change.

Because this team is in the AFC South, another loss to the Patriots won’t be fatal. But it’s probably the most important game of the season because the Colts must prove they can at least be competitive against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and friends. Another blowout loss means this team hasn’t improved enough to take the next step, which was speculated as a realistic possibility when the Colts were offseason media darlings.

After the Patriots, the New Orleans Saints visit Lucas Oil Stadium. The Saints (1-3) have issues and the Colts will be favored and should win, although nothing seems to come easy for this team.

But then there’s a trip to play the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football. Then Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos return to Indy. And after a bye week, the Colts visit the Atlanta Falcons.

Go ahead. Take a breath. Then exhale.

If Hasselbeck keeps playing for an injured Luck, the Colts’ offense should still be able to generate some points with the recent tweak to a quick-hitting passing game and more carries for running back Frank Gore. That might not be enough against the unbeatens, but the success of the past two weeks with No. 8 at the helm provides some hope.

Problem is, the Colts’ defense hasn’t exactly played lights out so far. The Colts have prevailed in tight games against the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans because each of those teams had bigger issues.

The Colts have been decent in stopping the run lately, but the pass defense is suspect, to say the least. Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis is playing hurt with a foot injury. Cornerback Greg Toler was less than stellar in his season debut Thursday and nickel cornerback Darius Butler has been beaten when left alone outside on speedy wideouts.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the lack of a pass rush. New outside linebacker Trent Cole doesn’t have a sack. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis has only one. The 3-4 blitzing scheme has produced just six sacks in five games.

That’s without question the biggest problem moving forward, even more than if Luck or Hasselbeck takes the snaps. We’ve seen it time and time again in past losses. When the Colts don’t get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they get shredded.

Nobody gets rid of the ball more quickly than Brady. While some spend a lot of time talking about how Manning isn’t the same, we know from first-hand experience what he can do to any defense if he doesn’t get rushed. And Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is off to the best start of his eight-year career with 1,202 passing yards, which ranks second in the NFL.

Buckle up a bit, folks. This ride is about to get a bit bumpy.

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

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