COMMENTARY | After reaching the postseason for nine straight seasons from 2002-10, tying a league record for consecutive playoff appearances, the Indianapolis Colts were a Manning down (and more) in 2011.
And after losing its first 13 games that season, the franchise finished 2-14 and wound up with the first pick in the draft.
Then combine the fact that the eventual selection of quarterback Andrew Luck meant that Indianapolis would no longer be Peyton's place, and who knew what to expect.
However, an amazing set of circumstances keyed by persistence, heart and love saw Chuck Pagano's team (with a major assist from 2012 NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians) finish 11-5 and earn a playoff berth.
But it is onto 2013, and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Indianapolis Colts:
QB Andrew Luck: The first overall pick in the 2012 played a major role in the team's turnaround a year ago, thanks to his ability to shake off his own mistakes and lead the Colts to numerous come-from-behind wins. Luck did set a rookie record with 4,374 passing yards, threw 23 touchdown passes and ran for five more scores. But he also turned over the ball 23 times a year ago, then twice more in the AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens in a game that saw Indianapolis fail to score a touchdown. If Luck gets any kind of run support and pass protection, he should be even better in 2013.
WR T.Y. Hilton: It will be interesting to see who winds up as the starter at wide receiver opposite prolific pass-catching veteran Reggie Wayne. While the Colts did bring in speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey, he hasn't seized the moment as of yet. Meanwhile, it's been hard to ignore Hilton, a third-round choice from Florida International a year ago. The talented received has enjoyed a solid preseason one year after leading the team in total touchdowns (8) as a rookie. Hilton should be even better with a year of experience, and he may very well lead the Colts in touchdowns once again.
NT Aubrayo Franklin: Not necessarily a household but rather a veteran that has bounced around the league for numerous teams. But if the Colts' defense is going to work and improve on its ranking of a year ago against the run (29th in NFL), the experienced nose tackle must do his job and tie up more than one blocker. Franklin, late of the San Diego Chargers, will join fellow free-agent pickup and defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois (San Francisco 49ers) in a revamped defensive front that hopes to make a big impact.
OLB Erik Walden: The last we saw the former Green Bay Packers linebacker in a meaningful game he was being bamboozled by the running ability of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the divisional playoffs. Now he's being counted on to help a Colts defense that frankly needs some help, especially when it comes to rushing the passer and forcing turnovers. Rookie outside linebacker and 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner has opened a few eyes, and both he and Walden need to make an impact sooner than later.
FS LaRon Landry: The one-time first-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2007 signed with the New York Jets after five seasons in the nation's capital. And 2012 resulted in a Pro Bowl campaign for Landry, who rang up career-highs in tackles (100) and forced fumbles (4) while returning an interception for a score for the first time in his NFL career. But it was one and out with Rex Ryan's team, and he signed with the Colts this offseason. Once he's healthy, he expects to make his presence felt early and often.
So what can we expect from the Colts in 2013? Can the franchise make it 11 playoff appearances in 12 seasons? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? It should be an intriguing year for Pagano's squad.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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