Are Colts for real? Four-game gauntlet ahead will likely determine that

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first seven games for the Indianapolis Colts has been about getting as many wins as possible and a feeling-out process to see how the addition of players such as quarterback Philip Rivers, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and rookies such as running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Michael Pittman Jr. would fit in with the core group of players general manager Chris Ballard has built the team around.

The Colts, despite dealing with season-ending injuries to running back Marlon Mack and safety Malik Hooker, are 5-2 and tied with Tennessee for first place in the AFC South.

But now the challenge starts. It’s the type of challenge that's been visible for months, since the schedule was released in the spring.

The next four games -- against Baltimore, at Tennessee, Green Bay and the Titans -- will not only give a good indicator of what type of team the Colts really are, but also mean a whole lot in what appears to be a two-team race in the AFC South.

“I think I certainly am one of those guys that does look at the schedule as a whole,” Rivers said. “But at the same time, we don’t play them all in one afternoon. So it is a tough stretch, but if you played them all on one Sunday, it’d be about undo-able. But it’s one week at a time, one day at a time. They all stand alone. So we know what’s coming, but all that matters is -- I know it’s the boring answer -- but it’s 1-0 this week.”

The Colts will try to publicly downplay this stretch -- as they should -- but they know this stretch of games won’t be against teams like Jacksonville, the Jets, Bengals and Vikings, who have combined for five victories this season. The Ravens, Packers and Titans are all 5-2, just like the Colts.

“We’re in position to have a chance to accomplish all we want to accomplish,” Rivers said. “That’s all that you can ask for. Certainly I think it’s OK to have a few moments where you go -- you kick yourself and go, ‘Danggumit, we should be 7-0.’ But we’re not. But we’re in a position where we have a chance and keep moving forward.”

Rivers, Rhodes and cornerback Xavier Rhodes weren't with the Colts last year when the Colts started the season 5-2. But don't be surprised if it's discussed at least briefly at some point this week.

The Colts went on the road to beat the eventual Super Bowl Champions Kansas City on national television to move to 5-2. All signs appeared to be that Jacoby Brissett was going to be the Colts quarterback going forward as Andrew Luck's replacement. The defense stymied Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense most of the game and the Colts ran the ball over and over again against Kansas City.

But the season spiraled out of control after that for the Colts. They won only two more games the rest of the way to finish 7-9 and miss out on the playoffs.

"I think we can learn from last year," coach Frank Reich sad. "We won’t talk too much about that; we really won’t. Last year was last year. It’s a different team. We are just going to focus on trying to build from where we are right now.”

The first challenge for the Colts will be figuring out a way to slow down Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, and then a short week to prepare for a Thursday night game on the road at Tennessee, followed by future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers before the rematch against the Titans.

“New team, new season,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “None of that [the 2019 finish] should even matter.”

What makes the Colts feel good is how they're going into these games. Rivers, after starting the season with more interceptions than touchdown passes, is 52-of-77 for 633 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in the past two games.

That's what the Colts need from Rivers because they've yet to find any kind of running game (25th in the league) since they lost Marlon Mack (Achilles) for the season.

The defense has been the backbone of the team all season. Third in total yards allowed (293.4), second in rushing yards allowed (79.9) and fifth in points allowed (19.4) to go with a league-high 11 interceptions.

But again, the Ravens aren't the Bengals, the Titans aren't the Vikings and the Packers aren't the Lions.

"We’re just going to attack every single game,” guard Quenton Nelson said. “We’re a different team. It’s a team with more experience, the players, the coaches, and we’re gelling even more with DeForest and Xavier and Phil. So we’re not looking back.”