With their 27-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Indianapolis Colts transformed an off-season punchline into a very real possibility. At 6-3, the Colts find themselves holding down the 5th AFC playoff seed (1st wild card spot) with a 2-game lead over the teams in 7th place (San Diego, Cincinnati and Miami are all tied at 4-5, Tennessee is sitting at 4-6). The more remarkable thing is that, not only are the Colts in playoff position now, there are actually multiple factors working in their favor to help turn their playoff dreams into reality. After the jump, we'll take a look at those factors, and break down what has to happen for the Colts to complete their remarkable turnaround.
The first - and most obvious - positive factor is the fact that the AFC is not very good this year. Through 10 weeks (KC and Pittsburgh have yet to play, but the outcome of that game won't affect this stat) the AFC features 6 teams with a record of .500 or better. Those six teams (HOU, BAL, NE, DEN, IND, PIT) hold down the 6 AFC playoff spots (duh). They are currently being chased by a pack of 7 teams (SD, CIN, MIA, TEN, NYJ, OAK, BUF) with 3 or 4 wins.
While it's impossible to predict how the next 7 weeks will play out, it certainly feels as though 9 wins will be enough to secure one of the two wild card spots (and there's an outside chance that 8 might do the trick as well). Consider the following: of the 21 wins racked up by the 7 chasing teams, only 4 have come against teams with a winning record (CIN v NYG, TEN v PIT, NYJ v IND, OAK v PIT). In other words, those 7 teams find themselves in the playoff discussion mainly due to their ability to bottom feed.
The thought that one might bottom feed their way to the playoffs leads us to...
The second factor working in favor of the Colts march to the post-season is the schedule of those chasing them. We'll look at the schedules of the 7 "chasers" to illustrate our point.
Against Playoff Teams
@DEN*, v BAL*, v CIN**, @PIT*, v CAR, @NYJ**, v OAK**
@BUF**, v SEA*, v NE*, @SF*, v JAX, v BUF**, @NE*
@KC, v OAK**, @SD**, v DAL, @PHI, @PIT*, v BAL*
@JAX, v HOU*, @IND*, v NYJ**, @GB*, v JAX
@STL, v NE*, v ARI, @JAX, @TEN**, v SD**, @BUF**
vsNO, @CIN**, v CLE, v DEN*, v KC, @CAR, v SD**
vsMIA**, @IND*, v JAX, v STL, v SEA*, @MIA**, v NYJ**
^ - denotes a team the Colts have beat this season, giving them the head-to-head tie breaker
~ - denotes a team that has beaten the Colts this season, giving them the head-to-head tie breaker
* - denotes a playoff team given the current standings
** - denotes a "chasing" AFC playoff team
As you can (hopefully) see, not only do the remaining schedules for most teams feature some tough games (16 of the 48 will be against playoff teams), but 17 of the remaining 48 games come against other chasing teams. In other words, these teams are going to play each other a lot. This could work in one of two ways: 1) certain teams dominate their "chaser" meetings, the field is thinned, and a clear fight for the final 2 playoff spots is created or (the hope of Colts fans everywhere) 2) the teams trade wins, basically eliminating each other from the playoff race.
Based on the remaining schedule, the teams Colts fans should be most concerned with are Cincinnati, New York, and Oakland.
Cincinnati's remaining schedule is fairly easy, featuring 5 teams with a sub-.500 record, compared to only 2 playoff teams (1 game against PIT, 1 game against BAL). They will be on the road for 4 of their last 7, and it's impossible to tell which version of the Dallas Cowboys they'll face (their week 14 opponent), but compared to the rest cof the "chasers", the Bengals have one of the best roads to the playoffs.
The Jets have a couple of things working in their favor. First, they've already beat the Colts, which gives them the head-to-head tie breaker should they be able to catch-up in overall record. Second, they face only 1 team with a winning record (NE) in those final 7 games, while having the opportunity to pick up wins against the Rams, Cardinals, and Jaguars. Keep in mind, we're only looking at the Jets chances based on their schedule. If we're talking about them as a team, I'm just not sure they'll be able to fix their offense enough to win 5 or 6 of their last 7.
The Raiders also have a pretty nice schedule, facing only one (current) playoff team: Denver. Outside of that, they also have games against Cleveland, Carolina, and Kansas City, which means they should have the opportunity to pick up a handful of wins, but like the Jets, I'm just not sure they can fix all of the problems they would need to overcome in order to win 5 or 6 of their last 7 games.
While there are certainly teams who will have the chance to put pressure on the Colts and Steelers, there is still one final factor to consider as we discuss the Colts playoff push...
Their own schedule is pretty favorable. In their final 7 games, the Colts will play 3 playoff teams: this week against the Patriots, and the Texans twice in the final 3 weeks of the season. If you remove those 3 games, the remaining 4 teams have a combined record of 12-24. While no one is saying games against Tennessee, Buffalo, and Detroit are easy, those are the kinds of teams the Colts should be able to beat if they want to consider themselves playoff contenders. Also working in their favor is that, while they will be on the road for 4 of their final 7 games, 2 of those home games are against "lesser" teams in Buffalo and Tennessee, which should help reduce the chance of an upset.
At 6-3 the Colts still have a lot of work to do if they want to secure a spot in the post-season, but if they were to miss the playoffs now, considering their record, their upcoming schedule, and the circumstances surrounding the teams chasing them, it would have to be considered a minor upset. So yes, we're talking about the playoffs!.. PLAYOFFS!?! I'm just hoping the Colts can win 3 more games.