By Todd Golden
Indianapolis — The evidence is going to be there in black and white in the National Football League standings on Page B2 today.
After the Indianapolis Colts defeated the San Francisco 49ers 18-14 at Lucas Oil Stadium, and after the Baltimore Ravens knocked the surprising Denver Broncos from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 30-7 victory on Sunday, the Colts have the AFC’s best record at 7-0.
So there it is ... the Colts have the AFC’s best record. But are they the AFC’s best team? That isn’t as cut and dried.
Certainly, a convincing case can be made. When Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are part of your offense, the Colts are obviously in every game. When the Colts create pressure off the edges defensively, as they have throughout most of the season, they can win games even in the rare instances Manning is human, as he was on Sunday against a game 49ers defense when he overthrew Colts receivers on occasion.
The Colts are in the Super Bowl conversation for sure, but are they at a stage where they should be the first AFC team mentioned to be Miami-bound in February?
Not yet. Not when the Colts haven’t proven it against the caliber of teams they’ll see in the AFC playoffs.
The Colts’ unbeaten record is built on the foundation of wins against teams that form the weak underbelly of the NFL this season. The combined record of the Colts’ foes going into Sunday’s games was 12-29. Two Colts opponents — the Rams and Titans — were winless going into Sunday’s action.
Mind you, the fact that the Colts have not played any power teams is not their fault. Would-be contenders such as Miami — and especially Tennessee — have fallen off the levels both were at last season. All the Colts can do is play who’s in front of them and beat them.
Mission accomplished as far as that’s concerned, but there’s still some performances that give me pause. Average-at-best teams — such as the Jaguars and 49ers — shouldn’t be able to push the Colts to the two-minute warning in games at Lucas Oil Stadium as both have done this season.
It feeds into the perception — fair or unfair — that the wins the Colts have don’t rate much on the perception scale, especially when you look at the Colts’ competition for the AFC’s Super Bowl spot. All have at least one victory that stands out more than any one Colts win.
The Patriots have beaten the Falcons and Ravens. The Steelers have defeated the Vikings. The Broncos (we’ll see if they stick among the AFC’s elite) have beaten the Patriots, Cowboys and Bengals. The 4-3 Ravens — a team I think will get back into the AFC picture as the season rolls along — beat up on the Broncos on Sunday.
What’s the most impressive team the Colts have beaten to date? It’s probably the 31-10 victory at Arizona on Sept. 27. The Cardinals are a nice team and have played well of late, winning three straight road games going into Sunday’s action, but history has taught us repeatedly that the Cardinals aren’t exactly a picture of consistency. Beating the Cardinals is not a signature win, nor a barometer of how the Colts might fare in the AFC playoffs.
Apart from the schedule, there are chinks in the Colts’ armor that are disconcerting, most notably the Colts’ running game. Joseph Addai, despite showing off his lefty throwing touch on the go-ahead 22-yard touchdown pass to Wayne, struggled again to give the Colts a consistent running game. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry and the Colts’ offense ground to a halt when they tried to get him established. Several Colts defenders — Kelvin Hayden, Tyjuan Hagler most notably — were injured on Sunday. We’ll see to what degree they’re out, if they’re out at all.
We’ll know far more about the Colts after their upcoming stretch of games. Improving Houston visits Lucas Oil Stadium next Sunday, followed by a home showdown with the New England Patriots on Nov. 15. Then the Colts go to Baltimore on Nov. 22 and to Houston on Nov. 29.
If the Colts emerge from that stretch unscathed, or even with one loss, anoint them as the AFC’s best. They’ll deserve it.
Until then, the jury is still out.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org