When Cantor Gaming released pointspreads for every NFL regular-season game earlier this month, one line immediately caught my eye. It was a role reversal that got me thinking about a team, a division and a conference.
On Cantor's opening line, the Texans were one-point favorites vs. the Colts in Houston in Week One. Houston has never closed as favorites against Indianapolis, not once in 18 games, according to records from Jim Feist Sports and PFW. Now, a lot can change between June and September, and the majority of other sportsbooks in Nevada have rated the game as a pick-'em or installed the Colts as a slight favorite, but the fact that even one major sportsbook manager would open Houston as a favorite against Indianapolis is an eye-opener, given the history between the teams.
The Colts have dominated this series, winning 16-of-18 games. The gap between the clubs has usually been wide. Only once before have the Texans been underdogs of less than three points vs. Indianapolis. Interestingly, that was last season, when they ran all over the Colts en route to a 34-24 win in Week One.
Alas, a changing of the guard in the AFC South it wasn't. The Texans, doomed by a porous defense, faltered. So did the Titans, who faded after a 5-2 start. The Jaguars threatened for much of the season, but then went away quietly. In the end, the Colts had another South title, their seventh in nine seasons.
However, Indianapolis was eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round, losing at home to the Jets. And at the Cantor books, which includes those at the M Resort Spa and Casino and Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the feeling is the Colts aren't quite the same team. Mike Colbert, the company's race and sports book director, told PFW earlier in June that he believes the effects of being "just a year older" will cause Indianapolis to slip somewhat.
While the Colts were installed as favorites in all but four games by Cantor, they were early 6½-point underdogs at New England in Week 13 and four-point underdogs at Baltimore in Week 14. Also, the Colts were mere 1½-point favorites vs. Pittsburgh in Week Three and just two-point favorites against Atlanta in Week Nine.
That the Colts weren't even favored by three points at home vs. the Steelers and Falcons speaks to how Cantor believes the public perceives Indianapolis. As a general rule of thumb, a game between two evenly matched clubs at a non-neutral site has the home team favored by a field goal. Were the Colts regarded as a true powerhouse entering 2011, they surely would be laying more than a field goal in both games. The Steelers have had their problems with strong passing games, and the Falcons' defense is not a shutdown unit.
Perhaps the Colts are no longer top-of-the-list Super Bowl-title contenders. It's a conclusion some might reach after considering how the Colts struggled to win their division and could not beat a Jets club that it had clobbered the previous postseason. But let's set those bigger issues aside momentarily and simply consider where the Colts stand in the AFC South. Can anyone knock them off?
The Texans, who should be better than they were a season ago because of the addition of defensive coordinator Wade Philips, loom as the primary threat to Indianapolis. I'm already on record as saying the Texans aren't the weirdest AFC title longshot I've ever seen, so you know I'm not exactly enamored with the Colts and can see a case for Houston. But if I were backing the Texans at the windows, I would still be swallowing hard at seeing Peyton Manning twice each season.
The same can be said for those who fancy the Jaguars, who are building a nice foundation for the future but simply might not be able to get enough stops against Indianapolis.
The Titans have some wonderful individual performers, with RB Chris Johnson atop that list, but they are in the worst shape of all of the AFC South teams, with a revamped coaching staff and schemes and no clear starting quarterback. Also, their defense has finished in the bottom half of the NFL the past two seasons.
The urge to write a team off before its expiration date is showing for all to see. Some might think the time is now to discount the Colts. But I'm hesitant to do that. A few less injuries — remember how the offense sometimes labored without TE Dallas Clark and WR Austin Collie — and perhaps the Colts look a little better this season. Clark, who's coming off a wrist injury, looks on schedule for training camp, ESPN.com reported in March. Meanwhile, Collie (concussion) is working to return for the start of the season, The Indianapolis Star reported in May. Manning is coming off neck surgery, but Colts owner Jim Irsay said in May that "(assuming) we had a full and regular season, I think he'd be good to go for preseason games."
When the regular season begins, the Colts could indeed be underdogs at Houston. Should they lose and appear vulnerable doing do, we'll see a round of stories wondering if they can keep up in a division they have owned.
Still, I wonder if anyone in the division can play at Indianapolis' level for 16 regular-season games. After that? Opinions will vary. Perhaps the Colts will be kings of the AFC South and nothing more. To think that their season will amount to nothing at all, however, seems a stretch.