The item that should be first and foremost on everyone's mind is the fact that the Colts currently rank 30th in the NFL in rush offense (80.1 yards per game), behind the pass-only Cardinals and the lowly Lions.
Indianapolis did face four of the top ten run defenses in the league in Chicago (7th), Minnesota (1st), Baltimore (3rd), and Tennessee (9th) in their first seven games and had only 514 yards (73.4 per game) to show for it. But, they also faced three teams in the bottom half of the league in Jacksonville (17th), Houston (24th), and Green Bay (26th).
Despite their seven-game win streak, the Colts have room for improvement in the run game
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
In their next seven, they faced only one top ten team, the Steelers (2nd), but still managed a paltry 607 yards (86.7 per game) in those seven games. However, they should have fared better during their seven game winning streak, considering that the Chargers (12th) and the Patriots (15th) were the only two teams that currently rank in the top half.
They also had the Texans (24th), the Bengals (23rd), the Browns (28th), and Detroit (32nd) on their schedule, so it stands to reason that they should have been significantly more successful during their current run than they have been.
One of the more disturbing trends is that they scored eight rushing touchdowns in their first seven games, as opposed to only five in their last seven. Even more disconcerting is that three of those rushing touchdowns came in Week 15 against the Lions, so they had only scored two rushing touchdowns in their other six games.
They did post two of their three 100-plus outings in their last seven — 106 against the Lions and 154 in Week 11 against Houston — but they needed 29 carries against Detroit and 34 against the Texans to reach those numbers, while they only needed 19 carries to post 114 rushing yards against the Jaguars.
They have only averaged four yards a carry or more three times this season, with the non-100 yard game against the Titans the lone outlier.
The threat of the passing game has come back and injuries along the offensive line can no longer be used as an excuse at this point of the season.
Excuses in general are out the window. As the weather turns colder and teams start to game plan around the strengths of opponents come playoff time, the Colts simply need to get better at running the football and opening up holes for Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes.
When the season started, teams stacked the box and dared Peyton Manning to beat them. Due to injuries along the offensive line, the fact that his knee was not completely healed, and the running game sputtered, Manning got off to the slowest start of his career, throwing nine interceptions against ten touchdown passes in the first seven games.
Peyton Manning has turned things around after a slow start
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
He has turned things around, though, and thrown 13 touchdowns against three interceptions in the past seven games. His passer rating is back up to a respectable 90.3 and he is no longer in danger of suffering his worst season since his rookie year.
He only faced two top ten pass defenses in the first seven games in Baltimore (2nd) and Tennessee (5th), but the last seven have been easier, with only Pittsburgh (1st) ranking in the top ten. He also had his two best games of the season against the Ravens and the Steelers, throwing for 240 yards or more in both contests and three touchdowns with no interceptions in each.
At this point, Manning seems like he will succeed regardless of matchup, but, again, the Colts will need to balance their potent passing attack with the running game in order to be successful in the bad weather and customized game plans of the postseason.
Ever since the Colts started the season on a record pace to become one of the worst run defenses in the history of the NFL, they have successfully stopped the bleeding and have worked their way back to respectability.
A recent article by yours truly covered this mild resurgence. The Cliff Notes of that article is that, even though Indianapolis currently ranks 25th against the run, they are not an easy mark. Teams that run the ball well in general run the ball well against the Colts. However, drawing the Colts on their schedule does not instantly make them an effective running team.
The best news from that article is that, of the three teams Indianapolis has already played and would likely meet in the playoffs, the run defense has had success against all of them. Tennessee (2.84 yards per carry), Baltimore (2.68), and Pittsburgh (2.19) did not find much running room when they met the Colts, so that bodes well for the postseason.
Antonio Johnson's emergence, coupled with some stability along the defensive line — although the linebackers continue to be in flux — has contributed to this improvement. The one distressing factor is that everyone seems to be able to score against Indianapolis on the ground, as the Colts have allowed 16 rushing touchdowns, which is eighth worst in the league and second-worst among playoff teams in either conference.
The good news is that teams have scored on the ground because they cannot score through the air. The Colts are seventh in the league in pass yards per game allowed and have given up only five passing touchdowns, the best in the league.
They faced only two of the top ten passing teams in the first seven games in Green Bay (9th) and Houston (4th), and faced 7th-ranked San Diego in the last seven, as well as the Texans again. It should be noted, however, that both times the Colts faced Houston, Sage Rosenfels was behind center, not starter Matt Schaub.
Overall, they have faced some of the worst passing teams in the NFL in Chicago (22nd), Detroit (24th), Tennessee (25th), Minnesota (26th), Baltimore (28th), Cleveland (29th), and Cincinnati (30th). Facing the bottom six teams out of eight is not necessarily something to hang your hat on.
The fact of the matter is, though, that they have faced injury and adversity at every turn during the course of the 2008 season and have emerged as one of the best, if not the best, pass defenses in the league.
As far as making it to the Super Bowl is concerned, only the Denver Broncos (3rd), New England Patriots (11th) and New York Jets (15th) appear to be standing in their way on the AFC side.
But, the NFC side of the bracket presents a more substantial challenge with Arizona (2nd), Philadelphia (5th), Dallas (8th, four games without Tony Romo), Tampa (12th), and Atlanta (13th) in the way.
With sound schemes, coaching, and personnel, the stats and the players appear to be up to the challenge. Provided they can find a way to run the football, that is.