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BENNER: Colts will show that last year's 11-win season was not a fluke

August 31, 2013

Finally, the necessary machinations of the National Football League’s preseason are behind us.

Thus, it is time for your faithful correspondent to join the multitude and offer a Super Bowl prediction.

I’m calling for a cold one.

And the trusty Farmer’s Almanac, as good a predictor of weather months in advance as the TV guys and gals are days before, is forecasting a winter storm to accompany the NFL’s first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. It comes to Metlife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands next February.

I’m not wishing anyone bad luck, but a winterized Super Bowl would certainly enhance the prospects of other cold-weather cities who had the foresight to put a lid on their stadiums. You can’t rule out that a negative experience outdoors might help the city’s bid for another Super Bowl indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2018.

Of more immediate concern, however, is the forecast for the 2013 Indianapolis Colts.

For the Colts, 2012—after the shock of Chuck Pagano’s illness and hospitalization sank in—was all giddiness, serendipity and, of course, the inspiration provided by the stricken head coach.

It all really began with that stunning, come-from-behind victory over Green Bay, just days after the world learned Pagano had been diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia.

Still, as I recall leaving Lucas Oil Stadium that day, few, if any, believed that victory would be a stepping stone to an 11-win playoff season … not with a rookie quarterback (no matter how gifted), not with a rookie general manager, not with an interim head coach, not with all those new faces on the roster, not with new offensive and defensive systems.

I think I predicted eight wins a year ago, and felt as if I were crawling out on the end of a very thin limb in doing so.

Unexpected success is always the best kind. As the Colts kept pulling out victories in such improbable ways—Vick Ballard’s dive into the end zone at Tennessee, the against-all-odds win at Detroit—it all seemed like, well, gravy.

And for the skeptics, getting drilled at New England and Houston was all the proof they needed that the Colts were more fairy dust than actual substance, even though, as a wise old coach (Bill Parcells) once said, “You are what your record says you are.” Though someone followed that up with, “But not all records are created equal.”

In any case, the Colts’ record said they were a playoff team, only a year removed from that horrific 2-14 season and the departure of both the face (Peyton Manning) and the brain (Bill Polian) of the franchise. And truth was, the playoff loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore did not dampen—at all—the feeling of accomplishment.

That was then. This is now. The Colts have expectations, again, and large ones, which is a good thing. Yet many among the national scribes believe the combination of a (supposedly) more difficult schedule and the supposition that they simply can’t win as many games in the manner they did a year ago will relegate the Horseshoes to a middle-of-the-pack outfit.

Perhaps it’s the fan in me, but I don’t buy it.

Barring injury—always the great X factor—there appear to be significant upgrades everywhere, and owner Jim Irsay spent freely (we shall see if wisely) in pursuit of free agents. Concerns about the aging yet seemingly ageless Reggie Wayne seem negated by the blossoming presence of T.Y. Hilton. The offensive line is more solidified, and there has been the hint of a real run-pass balance in new coordinator Pep Hamilton’s system.

Then there is Andrew Luck. If the Colts will just keep him upright, he will win some games for them more or less on his own. Common sense says that—given his talent, intellect and work ethic—he will take it up to another level in his second year.

Yes, Dwight Freeney is gone from the defense, but the Colts will miss his leadership more than his physical presence. Camp and preseason have unveiled some potential playmakers on the defense. And there is no better kicking combo in the league than Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee.

Perhaps the greatest unknown is Pagano, for whom a full assessment will come with a full season.

So my forecast for the Colts is this: They’ll back up those 11 wins and go at least one round deeper into the playoffs. Who knows, maybe even a Super Bowl awaits. If so, bundle up.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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