This is the season's halfway point for the Indianapolis Colts, and even their most optimistic fan would say a 6-2 record exceeds expectations.
Back in September, I figured they would be fortunate to win one of their games against the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos but they took all three. I had them pegged for 4-4 at this point and, with a weaker second-half schedule, figured they'd go 6-2 and finish 10-6.
A 6-2 finish now would put them 12-4 and in serious running for a first-round playoff bye.
What went so right in the first half?
Andrew Luck and Robert Mathis for starters. They've taken their respective units and made them better – with occasional glitches, of course. Plus, the Colts have shown a knack for rising to the level of the best competition. (Their fault, conversely, is slipping to the level of their competition.)
With a home game against the Rams this Sunday, let's pause and grade the Colts on their first half:
Luck can't necessarily be judged by statistics, especially considering offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's “run-first” offense. However, they do show solid performance. Luck has thrown for 1,845 yards, 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions while completing 58.3 percent of his passes.
Through eight games his rookie season, Luck had 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He had 559 more yards passing through eight games last season, but had also thrown 72 more passes under Bruce Arians.
More importantly, Luck has stepped up his leadership within the offense. Even before the injury to wide receiver Reggie Wayne, he assumed more authority. This is his offense now, no question, and he has the right personality to make it work.
Running backs: B-
The loss of Vick Ballard, then Ahmad Bradshaw, has skewed what the running game might have been if those two key cogs were healthy. The acquisition of Trent Richardson, who came to the team after Ballard's knee injury, has generated mixed reviews.
Richardson is averaging 3.0 yards per carry and doesn't seem to have the breakaway burst of backup Donald Brown (4.5 yards per carry). The second-half key could be how Richardson is used in the passing game. He had a big reception in the comeback win at Houston.
Offensive line: C+
The offensive line has contributed to Luck being sacked 19 times, so that's not a good thing. Injuries have taken their toll, with Donald Thomas out after being acquired to fill a need at guard.
At times, they've thrived, as in the second half of the Texans game Sunday. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has made strides as a primary protector, but overall the line has been adequate, which is better than inadequate, but not quite where it needs to be.
The Colts are averaging 4.6 yards per carry in the running game, so the O-line deserves some credit for that.
Receivers, tight ends: B+
The loss of Wayne to a season-ending knee injury brings this group down. He led the team in catches, yardage and confidence before his torn anterior cruciate ligament.
In the one game since his departure, T.Y. Hilton emerged as the No.1 guy, catching three touchdown passes in the comeback win at Houston. Darrius Heyward-Bey has yet to be a consistent factor, although his speed and size make him a weapon. We've yet to see who will step up among Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill and David Reed.
Coby Fleener is the man at tight end with Dwayne Allen injured, and Fleener has looked stronger than ever lately. His two-point conversion catch was incredible, even if his “jazz hands” afterward were comical.
Defensive line: B
This group, primarily consisting of Cory Redding, Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois, has been solid. They've shown an ability to stifle a power running game at time, and each is capable of bringing pressure in the passing game. Fili Moala and Josh Chapman have been decent, too. It's not necessarily a spectacular group, but they embrace dirty work.
Outside linebackers: A
Any unit that has Mathis (11.5 sacks through half a season) on it is going to get a high grade. Mathis has moved to a more comfortable spot at rush end and given the job of devouring quarterbacks. He embraces that role well. Erik Walden played one of his better games against the Texans but remains a work in progress. Rookie Bjoern Werner gets a grade of “incomplete” due to missing time with injury.
Inside linebackers: B+
The more I watch Jerrell Freeman, the more impressive he seems to be. He brings that high energy and ability to deliver big hits that makes him the most likely Ray Lewis-style linebacker in the Colts system. Pat Angerer came up with a big stop on Texans quarterback Case Keenum late in the game last week and he seems to be approaching his peak health again after missing so much time in 2012.
This group was headed for an A or A- until it ran into Andre Johnson on Sunday. Rather, it watched Johnson run past. Johnson is a great receiver, so that's part of it, but the unit seemed unprepared for his play. Strangely so, I'd say.
The addition of LaRon Landry at safety has been a huge plus because of his ability to deliver big blows and prompt quarterback and receivers to know where he is at all times.
Vontae Davis and Greg Toler have been solid and sometimes spectacular at corners. Antoine Bethea is a cool veteran and Darius Butler has proved he could easily be a starter.
Kicking game: A
Adam Vinatieri remains clutch and has shown he still has plenty of kicking distance left in his leg. Pat McAfee's punting skills are challenged only by his moxie as a special-teams tackler. He's not afraid to hit and tackle and that sets a tone for the special teams. Matt Overton's long snapping has been excellent.
The Colts' return game has been erratic, but Hilton can be electric on punt returns. Cassius Vaughn and Reed have been battling for kick-return duties, with neither a clear better choice.
This is essentially Chuck Pagano's first season as coach since he missed so much with his leukemia fight a year ago. The decision to bring in Pep Hamilton and change offensive philosophies has been met with skepticism by those who feel, with some justification, that the Colts underutilize Luck's passing skills.
Pagano has made some curious decisions on punting, going for two-point conversions and using challenges. Some slack is warranted, given his relative inexperience as head coach. But that grace period ends at his halfway mark.
Holding a 6-2 record at the halfway mark is a success, even if the two losses were to inferior teams. The Colts have work ahead, dealing with the day-to-day absence of Wayne as a receiver, but they have a two-game lead in the AFC South and a manageable schedule.
Anything less than 6-2 in the second half will be underachieving. So, pressure's on.