Every NFL season brings with it outliers who far exceed expectations or disappoint miserably. With the futures odds set for the 2021 NFL season, we examine that broad range of possibilities for the Indianapolis Colts.
When Last We Met
The Colts finished the 2020 season at 11-5, good enough second place in the AFC South. The Titans also earned an 11-5 record but held a crucial tiebreaker over the Colts to win the division.
In Philip Rivers’ only season in Indianapolis, the Colts were able to clinch the AFC’s seventh and final playoff seed. Rivers booked a solid final season before hanging up his cleats, and running back Jonathan Taylor led all rookies in rushing yards and touchdowns. Plus, the Colts had one of the best defenses and were a well-balanced team that deserved its playoff berth.
Coming into the season — Head Coach Frank Reich’s third — the Colts were expected to win 10 games. The Colts exceeded that projection.
In the Wild-Card round, the Colts faced off against the Buffalo Bills, who won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The Bills were the hottest team in the NFL, coming into the playoffs with six straight wins and a high-powered offense. Indianapolis fought hard and kept it close but couldn’t overcome Josh Allen and the Bills, falling 27-24.
To Miss the Playoffs (+150)
It’s perhaps somewhat concerning how easy it is to imagine the Colts missing the playoffs in 2021. The Colts’ first five games are against opponents who went a combined 54-26 last season. Midseason, the Colts also have two consecutive brutal matchups.
In Week 11, the Colts get a chance to avenge their loss in the 2020 playoffs at Buffalo, who ended up making the AFC Championship Game. The following week, Indy plays host to defending Super Bowl Champs Tampa Bay. This time they’ll do so with Carson Wentz under center.
Carson Wentz had by far his worst season as a pro in 2020 as he led the NFL football with 15 interceptions and was benched in Philadelphia in favor of Jalen Hurts. Perhaps that form carries over to 2021. If Wentz gets injured, the Colts have unproven backups in Jacob Eason and sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger.
The Colts suffered a big loss in the offseason as starting LT Anthony Castonzo retired. GM Chris Ballard failed to draft a replacement for Castonzo and instead decided to sign Eric Fisher from the Chiefs, who is nursing a torn Achilles.
Plus, being in the same division as the Titans hurts Indianapolis. Tennessee returns its dynamic offensive duo of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry and landed Julio Jones in a trade with the Falcons. To add insult to injury, Tennessee signed former Colts DE Denico Autry to a three-year deal. Autry totaled 20 sacks in his three-year tenure with the Colts and was arguably Ballard’s best free-agent signing.
LB Anthony Walker, Jr. who had the second-most tackles on the Colts in 2020, is now with the Browns. DE Justin Houston, who had eight sacks in 2020, is also a free agent. Maybe the players the Colts selected in the first two rounds of the draft to replace their production won’t end up panning out.
The Colts haven’t won an AFC South title for seven years and it could be a tough road to reverse the trend. A few bad breaks could certainly mean the Colts miss out on the playoffs.
To Make the Playoffs (-180)
Before a season-ending knee injury, Wentz threw for 33 TDs and seven interceptions in 2017 under Reich’s guidance. That was good for second in TD-to-INT ratio and fourth in passer rating in the NFL. The Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at the helm. Now three years later, Wentz and Reich have reunited.
Much of this season will rest on Wentz’s shoulders. If Indianapolis gets anything close to the Wentz that Reich got as OC of the Eagles in 2017, a playoff berth should be a foregone conclusion.
That’s because this is a complete Colts team with a bunch of standout players and some interesting additions in the draft. T.Y. Hilton crucially elected to remain a Colt, at least for one more season. Hilton is the Colts’ third-leading receiver in franchise history and gives Wentz a bonafide weapon, something missing last season in Philly.
With its first-round draft pick, Indianapolis decided to select DE Kwity Paye from Michigan. At +850 to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, Paye should immediately be a key contributor to the Colts defense as should second-round DE Dayo Odeyingbo out of Vanderbilt.
Guard Quinton Nelson is the first offensive lineman to be selected to first-team All-Pro in his first three seasons. He’s the fifth player overall to achieve what is an incredibly impressive feat. Taylor had an incredible rookie season and should build off his strong play.
Taylor had 1,169 rushing yards and managed 11 rushing TDs and a whopping five yards per carry. Now, the Colts will get back Marlon Mack, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, from injury to add more RB depth. The Colts could return a balanced offense, which could give defenses nightmares.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts had one of the best rushing defenses in the league and forced the sixth most turnovers in 2020. That shouldn’t change much with DT DeForest Buckner, Paye, and LB Darius Leonard. After being traded from the 49ers to the Colts in the offseason, Buckner led the Colts with 9.5 sacks. Leonard has also been one of the most consistent players through his three seasons with the team.
While there are still some questions at left tackle, which will be occupied by Fisher and former Charger Sam Tevi, Wentz is getting a major upgrade in the offensive line department. He was sacked 50 times in 2020, the most in the NFL through only 12 games. There is an argument to be made that his offensive line was the biggest problem in Philadelphia
It’s conceivable that Indy misses the playoffs but anything short of a berth would be a disappointment and the odds reflect that. Ballard has put together a team that is capable of making deep playoff runs and is free of major weaknesses. If Indy gets a better and more confident Carson Wentz than in 2020, it should make a world of difference.
To Win the AFC South (+105)
Currently, the Colts are the favorite to win the division, with the Titans right on their heels at +110. One major advantage the Colts have over the Titans is strength-of-schedule. The Titans have the 13th toughest schedule in the league based on 2020 records, while the Colts have the 23rd. Another is that the Titans had a porous defense in 2020, ranking 28th in total yards allowed and 24th in scoring defense.
The Titans also have a five-week stretch in which they face the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Rams, and Saints consecutively. All five of those teams made the playoffs last season and it could be a make-or-break for the Titans season. The Titans figure to rely heavily on Tannehill, Henry, and Jones and an injury to any of the three would spell disaster.
The AFC South will most likely come down to a two-horse race between the Colts and Titans. So, beating the Titans twice would go a long way toward winning the division. In the first meeting of 2020 between the two, Indianapolis won in Nashville but lost at home a few weeks later in a game that could have handed Indy the AFC South title. It’s a difficult proposition but the Colts are capable of sweeping the season series.
Even if they don’t there are certain paths to winning the division. Nothing against the Texans or Jaguars, but the Colts should expect to go 4-0 in those divisional matchups. Indianapolis should also be comfortably favored to win in home matchups vs the Jets, Patriots, and Raiders. If the Colts win all of those games, going 4-6 in their remaining games could conceivably be enough to clinch, especially with how tough the Titans schedule is.
To Win the AFC (+1200)
The Colts have the sixth-best odds to win the AFC at +1200. Frankly, it might take Wentz to regain his 2017 form for the Colts to be able to win an AFC that also consists of the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, and Browns. The Chiefs have won the AFC two years running and don’t show too many signs of slowing down.
Maybe Taylor establishes himself as one of the NFL’s best running backs and the combination of Wentz and Taylor gives the Colts one of the best offensive one-two punches in the league. Mack could also regain his form from 2019 and give the Colts one of the NFL’s best backfields. It would certainly help if a wideout like Michael Pittman, Jr., who picked up over 500 receiving yards in his rookie season, or a finally healthy Parris Campbell breaks out.
Perhaps the left tackle problem isn’t actually one and Fisher steps in post-injury and completes one of the best offensive lines in football, led by Leonard. Paye was selected with the 21st pick in the draft but he has the potential to be one of the best players in the class. If the edge rusher plays his way into the defensive rookie of the year conversation and Buckner and Leonard keep up their production we could be looking at a defense to be reckoned with.
For the Colts to win the AFC it would likely take them to win the division. For argument’s sake, let’s say Indy wins its game vs the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card last season. Winning the AFC would have required two more wins over the Ravens and then Chiefs. That is a near-impossible task, so a strong 2021 regular season in which it could get a less formidable first-round opponent or a bye would be greatly beneficial to their chances.
As unlikely as a 7.7% chance sounds, I don’t think it’s too far out of the question. Wentz is a guy who played at an elite level for three seasons in Philadelphia before his 2020 debacle. This is a team around him that’s built to win if he’s able to pull it all together.
To Win the Super Bowl (+2200)
The good news for the Colts is that if they’re able to make it this far their opponent could potentially be weaker in the Super Bowl than in the AFC Championship game. Three of the four top teams odds-wise to win the Super Bowl play in the AFC.
At +2200, the Colts post the 10th-best odds to win the Super Bowl and sixth-best in the AFC. That speaks to just how stacked the AFC is and more so if the Broncos can pull off a trade for Aaron Rodgers. The Bucs are the clear favorite to make it out of the NFC but it should be a wide-open conference should Tom Brady get injured or the Bucs suffer an early playoff exit.
The Saints, Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks are all good teams but certainly have their flaws. Plus, the Packers might not even be in the conversation if Rodgers is gone. Again, though, this all comes back to how well Wentz performs. Maybe we’ll get to see what a healthy Wentz in 2017 would have looked like in the Super Bowl with Reich.
That sounds like a bit of a pipedream. It would be an incredible story, though, if Wentz goes from being booed in empty stadiums by virtual fans in 2020 and leading the league in interceptions to being the league’s best QB. The motivation to absolve himself of a whole lot of the blame from Philadelphia’s disastrous 2020 season and prove his detractors wrong could be there.
Like many others, I have no idea what to expect from Carson Wentz in 2021. That makes this Colts season an exciting crapshoot that could turn into glory, a trainwreck or anything in between.