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State of the Franchise: Colts viable contenders for Super Bowl

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Colts organization, Colts fans around the world and those who aren't really fans of the team but you certainly follow the Captain Andrew Luck Twitter account:

Dearest mother, we have weathered our darkest storm.

Just kidding.

But it does have some truth to it. The Colts have seemingly been good for much of my adult life. Something that you could always rely on. Like Steak 'n Shake fries. Like, no matter what you order at Steak 'n Shake, those fries are going to be the best thing on the menu. That was the Colts.

But the team went through a rough time recently. Three years of missing the playoffs. Questions about the long-term health of your quarterback. A coaching conundrum that could have made you the laughingstock of the NFL. However, the Colts rose above it and trudged on. They made it through those darkest hours, mother, and are once again viable contenders for the Super Bowl.

How the Colts got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.

The highs:

-- The return of Andrew Luck! And he could even throw a football again. That was a huge win just to have him back on the field looking like Andrew Luck once again.

-- Won nine of their final 10 games to get into the playoffs. We will touch on this one in just a moment when we talk about coach Frank Reich.

-- Beat the Texans in the playoffs. Rather impressively, too. The Colts are now one of the top contenders in the AFC. In fact, even if the Patriots won't admit it, Indy's got to be the team they are the most concerned about.

Low points:

-- Started the season 1-5. I mean, this is sort of Reich's brand of falling behind only to make a huge comeback. But you can't do that stuff again.

-- Did not look great in a playoff loss to the Chiefs. Dude, you didn't even get a first down until late in the second quarter. Against the Chiefs' defense. It's like playing Madden on rookie level and still not being able to complete passes. What was going on? It's like they had that huge win streak, won a playoff game and then rolled credits. If the Colts can get some sort of home-field advantage this year, look out.

-- Adam Vinatieri missed a crucial field goal in the Divisional Round. It was at the end of the first half against the Chiefs. And that was the worst part: It's the Chiefs. They probably wanted to collapse because that's on brand for them. But even Adam was like, "Nah, we're good with just beating the Texans."

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Frank Reich. Have you ever invited somebody to lunch and instantly regretted it? Like, why did I do that? I really don't want to hang out with that person? And then that person actually cancels on you, and you go out and have an even better time with somebody else? Well, that's what happened with the Colts when Josh McDaniels said, "Nah, I totally can't coach you," and went back to New England.

The Colts then hired Reich, who could have easily been Coach of the Year but lost out to Matt Nagy. I know this made a lot of Colts fans as salty as Steak 'n Shake fries. You know what makes me salty? Highlights of Super Bowl XLI. And make no mistake, we are far from even.

But you have Reich. And the thing that impressed me the most was what I alluded to above in Week 4. Reich could have taken the easy way out. Earned a tie with the Texans by running out the clock late in overtime. But he went for the win. The Colts lost, but the team still won because they not only realized they had a coach who believed in them, but also realized they won the coaching search even though they tried to hire the wrong guy.

The rest, as they say, was history. So the Colts lost that game, eventually went 1-5. Won nine of their last 10 to make the playoffs. Even won a postseason game, which is fun. This is pretty much Reich's brand. He engineered the biggest comeback in college football history at Maryland. He had that miracle playoff win over the Oilers in 1992 as quarterback of the Bills, replacing Jim Kelly.

Do you think Josh McDaniels would have done that for you?

Quarterback: Andrew Luck. Just last year, around this time, we were excited to learn that Luck was throwing actual NFL footballs -- The Duke, if you will. But questions still remained if he would ever be able to recapture the magic he had earlier in his career. We aren't wondering anymore. Luck had one of the best seasons of his career. He threw for 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns and 15 picks. As mentioned previously, he helped lead that rally to get the Colts back to the playoffs. And now that he has a full offseason of throwing The Duke, look out. And the further you get away from that injury, the more trust you will have in your body. So I would expect some more vintage Luck coming your way -- not only for this season, but the future, as well.

Projected 2019 MVP: Luck. I mean, we've seen the Colts without Luck. It's not great. And that's no disrespect to Jacoby Brissett, who I would consider one of the top backups in the league, but we're not going to get cute with this selection.

2019 breakout star: Malik Hooker, safety. Loved this pick when he was coming out of Ohio State and was bummed when he tore his ACL during his rookie season. Now, make no mistake about it, he was pretty good last year, which says a lot. And what I said above about Luck certainly warrants mentioning here: When you truly start to trust your body again, you can achieve great things. Hooker is going to end up a Pro Bowler this year and will be mentioned when you start talking about the best safeties in the game.

BTW, how good is this guy and how hurt is he? Darius Leonard, linebacker. I did a 2018 re-draft and Colts fans were livid that I had the Bears sticking with Roquan Smith instead of going with Leonard, which seems weird. I mean, weird that you want another team to have him. But I guess you're just trying to back your guy, which you should. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after leading the NFL with 111 solo tackles, while piling up seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two picks. He did this on a bum ankle that he hurt initially in Week 3. Leonard had surgery but should not have any problems moving forward into this season.

New face to know: Parris Campbell, wide receiver. One of the most exciting players for the Colts this season will be Campbell, one of those game-changers who could come in and mix it up. Give the Colts another player for other teams to have to worry about. Our own Reggie Wayne tabbed Campbell as one of his breakouts for this upcoming season. And he hasn't even played a down yet. That's where the excitement is.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. You have Andrew Luck. Your coach isn't afraid of anything. There are going to be expectations, but expectations have lived in Indianapolis since the late 1990s. So this is nothing new for you.

Will the Colts be able to ...

Find a reliable No. 2 receiver? T.Y. Hilton never gets enough love for how good he is. I know this is my fantasy football bias bleeding through here, but Hilton was pretty amazing last year. We talked about Campbell, but the team also brought in Devin Funchess. Some might scoff at him, but when you look at the way the Colts turned Eric Ebron into a top-flight player, there is a chance Funchess will be able to do the same thing here, too. A consortium of the two (Campbell and Funchess) would be agreeable.

Solidify the cornerback position? The team drafted Rock Ya-Sin in the second round, and he joins a stable of players who are good (with Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore) but they aren't exactly the Legion of Boom. Quarterbacks completed 71 percent of their passes against the Colts a year ago. They were middle-of-the-road in pass yards allowed. It's a small nitpick, but if you're competing against teams like the Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots, et al., you are going to need to stop the pass.

Avoid stumbling out of the gate? Well, I like that it's part of the Reich brand and everything, and it makes for compelling TV and other content. But you don't want to do that to your fans again. I mean, be you. Keep doing that. But you might want to consider being cooler to your fans.

Three key dates

-- Week 2 at the Titans. The Colts open with back-to-back roadies in Los Angeles and Tennessee. This tilt against the Titans will be the toughest. Again, you can't just drop early-season games and expect to make a push. The AFC South is too tough for that. And really, you can sap the will of the Titans early with a win here (which I'm predicting).

-- Week 5 at the Chiefs. At least try to get a first down in the first quarter. I don't feel like I'm asking a lot here.

-- Week 9 at the Steelers. This road schedule is not great for Indy. But the myth of Pittsburgh was kind of busted last season, so the Colts need to handle their business.

One storyline people are overlooking: The Colts had an all-time draft in 2018. I'm not sure Colts fans are overlooking this, but Chris Ballard doesn't get enough run for the turnaround he pulled last season. I mean, it's never overly exciting for fans when you take a lineman early in the first round. But Quenton Nelson was a great move at No. 6 overall. Nelson and Leonard were the first rookie teammates to be selected first-team All-Pro since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers with the Bears in 1965. And then No. 37 overall pick Braden Smith might have been the second-best lineman in the draft. This seems like one of those drafts we'll look back on years from now and wonder how Ballard was able to get all of these studs in one fell swoop.

One storyline people are overthinking: Not spending all of that loot on Le'Veon Bell. The Colts were thought to be one of the teams in the mix for Bell during the offseason, seeing that they had the most cap space headed into free agency. But I kind of like what Indianapolis has working at running back. Marlon Mack is on the verge of a breakout this season. Now, the fantasy community (dorks) will bemoan that he doesn't catch the ball enough, which sucks for them, but that doesn't matter for the Colts because Nyheim Hines is really good as a receiver out of the backfield. And for you fantasy guys, I'll let you know Mack averaged more than 17 carries over the last 12 games of the season and is one of the top red-zone backs. If the defense continues to improve, there could be more opportunities for Mack to pound the rock as the Colts salt away victories. Just saying.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Colts MUST ...

-- Advance to the AFC Championship Game.

The Super Bowl is a realistic goal for this team, as it should be with Andrew Luck at quarterback. But just getting back to the playoffs and playing better than you did against the Chiefs would be a huge start. That playoff loss was especially disappointing when you consider Andy Reid's history in the playoffs. So go in there and make some noise.

In closing

Dearest mother,

The Colts are back. All of our enemies are now shaken and headed for retreat. The Colts shall ride high once again real soon.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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