They've gone from two to 11 wins, and the Indianapolis Colts are just getting started.
In 2013, they aim to win the AFC South.
While Indy had an incredible season and is clearly on the rise, there is still a gap between it and the Houston Texans, with the Colts having a long way to go to retake the division title.
When comparing teams from one year to the next, it's helpful to use their Pythagorean record to get an accurate gauge of where the Colts are. Despite splitting the season series, there's plenty of reason to view the Houston Texans as significantly superior to the Colts.
The top three teams in the South significantly outperformed their expected record. Even the Tennessee Titans, who won only six games, played more like a five-win team.
Everyone knows the Colts significantly overperformed, helped by an insane 9-1 record in games decided by one score. Close games typically wind up in a 50-50 split, and it's highly unusual for a team to win so many in one season. It's not likely to be repeated in seasons to come.
The Texans may have slumped down the stretch, but part of that slump was merely the team attaining their natural level. They were more of a 10-win team than a 12-win squad.
Indy fans have to expect that it will take more than picking up a game on the Texans to retake the division. The Colts really need to make up a three-win improvement.
In fact, the numbers say the Colts have more in common with the Titans than they do the Texans.
Indy is going to have improve while hoping Houston comes back to the pack a little. What works in their favor is that both things are likely to happen.
Indianapolis is in a strong position in this free-agency period while the Texans are pushed up against the cap. The Texans have a long list of players who could walk and not much room to retain them. It's safe to say the Colts should close serious ground before the draft rolls around.
Come draft time, Indy will have to draft well to keep up with Houston. The Texans are already three picks up on the Colts due to previous trades made by Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson. Additionally, the Texans will likely get an extra third-round pick as compensation for losing Mario Williams. The Colts are unlikely to get any high compensatory picks. By sheer volume of players, it would be hard for the Texans not to get better in the draft.
Even if the Colts do manage to win the race for roster improvement, the real challenge will be for a young roster to outwork their counterparts. The Colts feature five skill players under the age of 25. Only Reggie Wayne has age concerns.
The Texans, on the other hand, have four key offensive players over the age of 30. Their youngest offensive cog is Arian Foster who turned 26 in September.
The Colts and Texans are in a race to prove who is hungrier. If the young stars of the Colts take huge steps forward through hard work, they could emerge the better team come September. If the veteran Texans pull together for another run at a ring, Houston could well find themselves with a third-straight division title.
Once the games are actually played, the entire roster will play a role, but the NFL is a quarterback driven league. While Matt Schaub looked like an MVP candidate at one point this year, he clearly took a major step back over the final weeks. The Colts, on the other hand, will be looking for Andrew Luck to make a big step forward in 2013.
If Luck becomes the player everyone thinks he will, that three-win gap will vanish.
The Texans are a team in decline and the Colts appear ascendant. Of course the Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars will have a say in things before all is said and done, but it's obviously difficult to project either team to pull off the kind of dramatic improvement necessary to set up a playoff run.
No one is handing the Colts the top spot in the division yet. Still, given the comparative core age and cap situations that the Colts and Texans are faced with, it's easy to see why Indianapolis should be viewed as the early favorite for 2013.
After all, should the division title come down to the last game of the season, the Texans had better hope it's not played in Indianapolis.
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