While I doubt that sharing Gregg Easterbrook’s Super Bowl prediction (at the bottom) is going to convince a lot of Colts fans who are rightfully concerned about the coming season with an injured Peyton Manning, it is worth pointing out that there is an expert football analyst out there who is keeping his head about him with regard to the team’s future. As I pointed out yesterday, this year’s schedule is almost tailor-made to survive a short-term Manning recovery period.
Not unlike Easterbrook, I believe the Colts are absolutely capable of getting into the playoffs and even reaching the big game if Manning is able to return in time to make the playoff push, and is healthy enough to compete at a high level. Even more importantly, I think Kerry Collins will have some ups and downs as he settles into the offense — but he is capable of winning a few games in Manning’s absence.
The favorable schedule aside, fans should not be so quick to forget that just last year an AFC team made it to the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback opening the season. Remember how the Steelers played Weeks 1-4 last year without a suspended Roethlisberger? When he returned, Pittsburgh won 9 of their remaining 12 games and entered the playoffs. Wins against Ravens and the Jets got them into the Super Bowl.
With Manning back on the field, a playoff berth could set Indianapolis up with the same road to the Super Bowl. It has been patently clear that the Colts have had the Ravens number more often than not, throughout their series. The Jets have split with the Colts in the playoffs, and it took an awful lot of misfortune and injuries for it to happen in 2010.
The point is, losing the starting quarterback and getting into the playoffs is hardly an insurmountable enterprise. For a lot of teams, it’s not even that uncommon to have to overcome that kind of adversity to get there. Want some positive spin to a Manning return and Colts playoff berth?
Each year the Colts have been so dominant in regular season that they have barely had to even put any effort into the final two weeks and could coast into the tournament. The NFL’s changes to division games aside, that will be very unlikely in 2011. The last time a healthy Colts team had to claw and scrape its way into the playoffs was in 2006, with pieces of the team still coming together at the end of the regular season — fans in Indianapolis should remember how that turned out.
Anyone familiar with football will tell you that the moment Manning returns to the starting lineup ready to play, the Colts will be instant favorites in almost any one of the team’s remaining games. If he does so with a chance to still win the division, almost any fan or analyst will tell you that the Colts are the instant favorites again for the division. Knowing these things, fans should head into the regular season with a positive outlook.
In fact, starting the season without Manning will give the team a chance to develop areas on both sides of the football that should pay dividends late in the season. Consider, if the team has to spend a lot of time working on the ground game, which will likely become a bigger part of the offensive game plan, how handy will it be for the offense when Manning returns? Consider, if the defense shows an ability to stop the run against early opponents and step up under more pressure to perform, how much will that help if Manning gets the ball more when he returns?
There are too many veterans in the Indianapolis Colts locker room to allow Manning’s absence to be an excuse to not give it everything they have to win football games. In fact, one could argue that these players will work even harder to perform to keep things rolling for when their team leader returns. And… those players who want a chance to really stand out and make a name for themselves without the mega star on the field will get that opportunity.
Sure, there are legitimate and rationale reasons for Colts fans to be worried about the team’s chances in 2011. If Manning is unable to return, the team will not compete for a Super Bowl. If he does though, fans should look at the early season as a fun time to watch other areas of the team develop. These guys just might surprise you.