Expectations are everything. In sports, they will dictate whether a fanbase will be excited or disappointed during a season. They will get coaches fired or win them an award. They could cause a player to lose his starting job or win one.
They help put things into perspective and context. It’s why going 5-11 during the 2017 season was nearly unanimously considered a surprisingly successful year for the New York Jets because not much was expected of them.
And because of expectations, we get sleeper teams every year which we don’t catch onto until it’s too late. Teams whom not much was expected of heading into the season but tread water (at worst) and ultimately do better than what was expected of them, while having something about them that makes them a scary underdog to be avoided.
The two teams that fit this mold are the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC. Not much was expected from either side this year, and they have not blown any of us away with their play (for the most part), hence the solid (at best) 6-5 records. But they now find themselves in prime position to claim the second wild-card spot in their conference, with the potential to do serious damage to the NFL’s elite’s Super Bowl aspirations.
Both have been playing so well recently that they are the two most dangerous teams in the NFL, and the scariest one in each respective conference.
Being a “scary team” isn’t about who is the best. It’s about the quiet underdog the top teams would prefer to avoid for whatever reason. The best teams would still be heavy favorites if they were to match up, but whether it be for a singular great player, style of play, momentum, coaching, etc., they are matchups to avoid.
Any team can legitimately win on any given Sunday (or Saturday in the playoffs) in the NFL, and all it takes is one off-game, with the combination of something from the opponent, to be upset. Seattle and Indianapolis are two teams that the NFL’s elites would not want to take a chance on.
Let’s start with the Seahawks who were in a strange situation to begin the season. The running game and offensive line were huge liabilities over the past few years, and that was not expected to change. Also, the departure of many defensive stalwarts left the defense exposed and marked the end of an era.
The playoffs were viewed as far-fetched because it was supposed to be a transitioning/rebuilding year and the NFC was loaded. All the Seahawks had was Russell Wilson, and nothing more. But they have now become the scariest team in the NFC.
They have won six of their last nine games, with two of the losses coming by a combined seven points at the hands of the powerhouse Los Angeles Rams.
The two things that travel on the road (which is where the Seahawks will presumably play if they make it to January) are running games and defenses. Their defense is better than expected- in the top ten in points allowed. And, they are the top running team in the game, running the ball through anyone they have faced, no matter the competition.
This change in the offensive philosophy has brought much-needed balance because Seattle had an over-reliance on Wilson to do everything. Now, a lot of pressure has been taken off him, and we have seen the 29-year-old become even more efficient.
Remember, this is a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback we are talking about. Those are rare to find, and if you have one, your team will be in every game. But now he is being supported by the rest of the offense, making him a better player, which makes the team even better.
On top of that, this is a team with experience, which is an essential element when the games matter the most. Wilson is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and Pete Carroll is an excellent coach who has won in both college and the NFL.
The Hawks are simply a talented team with a well-balanced offense and experience in critical areas. That is not something the Rams or New Orleans Saints would want to face come January.
And the Colts are in a similar boat. They were a mess to begin the year, starting 1-5 and we wondered if Andrew Luck would ever be the same player again after his shoulder surgery.
But lo and behold, they have rattled off five consecutive victories to put themselves in a tie with the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC’s second wild-card spot. The Colts also find themselves just two games back of the Houston Texans in the AFC South, with whom they have a game remaining.
With this team, it’s not about the roster, as it is the people leading it. The defense is only middle of the pack, which is a vast improvement over the first six seasons of the Andrew Luck Era, but they aren’t going to win you games.
The real reason to fear the Colts is their offense which is being coached by a Coach of the Year candidate in Frank Reich and run by a reborn Andrew Luck who is having an MVP-caliber season.
In the Golden Age of offense in quarterbacks, the effect and value of your QB are enhanced like never before. If you have a great quarterback and creative coach, you will usually have a great offense, and it can make up for your deficiencies on defense, helping you win any game.
Just look at the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, and Pittsburg Steelers. They are among the best teams in the NFL but have suspect defenses. But, because of their high-powered offenses, or savvy QB play and coaching, they continue to win.
The Colts have quietly built up an elite offense because coach Reich’s scheme is optimizing Andrew Luck’s Hall of Fame potential. The Colts go as Luck goes, and he is having arguably his best year because he is finally being protected and has a running game to support him.
Through 11 games, the 29-year-old has thrown for 3,112 yards (282.9 yards-per-game), 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions while completing 68.4% of his passes. The 29-year-old is amid an eight-game streak where he’s thrown for at least three scores (27 TD: 7 INT ratio during the stretch).
And it’s no coincidence that the team started winning right when the offense hit its top gear. In their last six games, Indy has averaged 34.5 points-per-game in large part to their 145 rush yards-per-game. To put that into perspective, the top-ranked ground game this year averages 147.1 yards-per-game.
The running attack has accounted for 35% of the offense’s yards in this stretch, which is a better balance than the likes of New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Kansas City have had all year.
We see what Andrew Luck can do when he has support from the running game and offensive line. Pressure has been taken off him, while the line is protecting him better than anyone else. When everything is clicking, he can win you a game against anyone.
We have seen countless times in the past where an all-time great passer singlehandedly won his team a game. It’s what they do, and both these teams have those (at least in talent). But what elevates their respective sides is that their quarterback’s production is being optimized, giving them a chance to win on any given Sunday.