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Shutdown Countdown: Indianapolis Colts strive for consistency

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

In the praise of the Indianapolis Colts' unbelievable comeback playoff win last season, it's never mentioned that the Colts also allowed themselves to fall behind 38-10 at home to a good but not great Chiefs team.

That summed up the 2013 Colts. It was tough to know, from game to game (or even from half to half), what you'd be getting.

If the playoffs were chosen by the NCAA Tournament's selection committee, the Colts would have been given a nice bump in seed for having the best set of quality wins in the NFL. Indianapolis won at San Francisco and beat Denver and Seattle. Those were the three best teams in football last season and the Colts swept them. But the Colts also had moments that left you confused, like when they were blown out by St. Louis and Arizona and needed to rally to beat Houston.

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When the Colts were good, they were one of the elite teams in football. And some days they didn't show up at all. Against the Chiefs, we saw the yin and the yang all in one evening.

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Andrew Luck scores a touchdown against the Chiefs (USA Today Sports Images)

Andrew Luck scores a touchdown against the Chiefs (USA Today Sports Images)

This season, the Colts should take a step forward, mostly because of quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck has magnificent skills, and it was on full display as he led the comeback 45-44 win over the Chiefs. Luck hasn't put up incredible numbers over a season yet, but that will change in his third year.

The Colts have worked to fix the defense and also give Luck some additional weapons. They're nearly a lock for the playoffs because they play in by far the weakest division in the NFL. The Colts have put together two fairly successful seasons with Luck, and they'll continue that march forward this year.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Colts went 11-5 and won one of the NFL's greatest playoff games against the Chiefs before falling at New England.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The roster should be better. I'm not sure if the Colts' free spending helps them down the road, but it's good for now. Indianapolis gave big contracts to linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and defensive end Arthur Jones, which is a nice boost for the defense. They did find nice value on receiver Hakeem Nicks, who is trying to rejuvenate his career on a one-year deal. The losses of running back Donald Brown and safety Antoine Bethea hurt, but overall this team looks better.

Best offseason acquisition: The move I liked most was Nicks, and not only because he was just $3.5 million. Nicks is 26, motivated by the lack of a market for his services after his contract with the Giants ran out, and has shown he can be a top NFL receiver. In 2011, counting playoffs, he had 104 catches for 1,636 yards and 11 touchdowns in 19 games. Understandably there are questions about his ability to stay healthy, but if he avoids injury, he's going to have a big year.

Achilles heel: The Colts depend a lot on outside linebacker Robert Mathis to provide a pass rush, and he's suspended for the first four games. It won't be easy to replace Mathis' 19.5 sacks, and the team has two tough games to start, at Denver and against Philadelphia. The Colts need 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner (2.5 sacks as a rookie) to take a big step forward in Mathis' absence, and hopefully beyond.  

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Trent Richardson (Getty Images)

Trent Richardson (Getty Images)

Position in flux: The season-ending Achilles injury to Vick Ballard hurts the Colts' tailback depth, and that means even more pressure on Trent Richardson to perform. And, as we know, that can't make anyone in Indianapolis feel comfortable.

If you had to bet on Richardson's career outcome right now, "enormous bust" would be the favorite on the board. His 3.6-yard average as a rookie with Cleveland looked bad, until it compared to his 2.9-yard average in 14 games after Indianapolis traded a first-round pick for him. He touched the ball once against the Chiefs in the playoffs and he fumbled it away. A midseason trade isn't easy for anyone, but there were very few times that Richardson looked like a good NFL back. He has a ton to prove. And if he can't, now that Ballard is done and Brown is gone to San Diego, the Colts might be in some serious trouble at tailback.

Ready to break out: Dwayne Allen caught one pass in 2013, a 20-yard touchdown. He hurt his hip on the play and that was the end of his season. But he's healthy now and the 2012 third-round pick is going to have a big year. Coby Fleener is a solid player, but it seems like Allen has the higher ceiling of the two. With Luck throwing him the ball, Allen should put up some fine numbers.  

Stat fact: Luck has 8,196 yards in his career, the most for any NFL player through his first two seasons. There's an odd backlash against Luck by a vocal minority that I don't get. He has been fantastic and there's no reason to believe he won't be an MVP candidate for most of his career. A lot of his career efficiency marks are brought down by a 2012 season in which he attempted the most passes ever for a rookie (37 more than any other rookie, and only three rookies in league history came within 110 attempts of Luck) and led the Colts to the playoffs.

More was asked of Luck than any rookie quarterback in league history, and he turned in a Pro Bowl season. Last year Luck bumped his rating up to 87 despite losing Allen and Reggie Wayne early in the season. If you're going to claim that Luck is overrated, you're just taking the contrary viewpoint for sake of argument. He's great.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The Colts have the easiest schedule in the NFL. Opponents had just a .430 combined winning percentage in 2013. Indianapolis plays in the easiest division in the NFL, and its NFC partner is the East, which is clearly the weakest division in that conference. That's why the Colts might be the biggest lock to make the playoffs of any team in the NFL.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: I'm not ruling out the Colts making the Super Bowl. Their schedule is so soft that it sets up for them to be right in the mix for a bye. If Indianapolis sweeps Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville that's six wins, and 6-4 in their remaining games would probably be good enough for a top-two seed. Adding Nicks and getting Wayne and Allen back from injury is a great boost to the offense. If Luck keeps progressing and the Colts ride their ridiculous schedule to a bye, can they win two games and go to Arizona for the Super Bowl? Absolutely.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: As long as Luck is healthy, I can't imagine the Colts missing the playoffs. Their schedule is too soft for that. But I'm sure Indianapolis wants to be more consistent, to avoid games like the Rams debacle and the first 32 minutes of the playoff game against the Chiefs. But let's be clear, anything short of another AFC South title is a huge disappointment in Indianapolis.

The crystal ball says: The Colts are going to run away with the South, and even though their schedule is a significant advantage over New England and Denver, I'm not sure they're going to get a bye. And I'm not sure they're good enough yet to go into New England or Denver and win. A second-round loss against the Broncos or Patriots will feel a bit disappointing for the Colts because that was the result last year too, but Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will start fading soon and that's when Indianapolis' championship window will open.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Green Bay Packers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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