Commentary

Bury the Colts? Hold your horses, they're back on track

The Colts' 31-3 romp over the Ravens on Sunday told us how much better they might become this season, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Updated: August 6, 2009, 5:22 PM ET
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Peyton ManningBrian Spurlock/US PresswireThe Colts' offense -- struggling until a Week 5 late eruption against the Texans -- was working on all cylinders in a 31-3 rout of the Ravens Sunday. Quarterback Peyton Manning completed 19 of 28 passes for 271 yards and three scores.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Any questions about the potency of the Indianapolis Colts offense were answered just five minutes into the Colts' 31-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

That was precisely when Colts quarterback Peyton Manning dropped back and rifled a 67-yard touchdown to a wide-open Marvin Harrison. As Manning noted later, there was no trickery involved in the play. Harrison just blew past Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, Manning threw a perfect pass and the Colts broke open the game.

That touchdown was huge for one obvious reason: It reminded us just how dangerous the Colts offense still is. After all, Indianapolis had spent its four previous games appearing far less like a perennial Super Bowl contender and more like a has-been team on its wobbly last legs. But on Sunday it was hard to remember that this same squad had averaged just 17.3 points in its first three games, two of which were losses. Instead, the Colts told us how much better they might become this season.

Remember, this wasn't some hapless bottom-dweller that Indianapolis drilled. Coming into this contest, the Ravens had the NFL's best defense, a unit that had given up one touchdown pass, grabbed seven interceptions and made nine sacks this year. What they found inside Lucas Oil Stadium was a Colts offense that generated 334 yards without a single turnover.

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• Watch: Breaking down the Colts' win
As Manning said afterward, "This is more of what we expect around here."

Manning was talking specifically about an offense that attacked Baltimore from the opening minute. Though the Ravens helped the Colts by committing three turnovers in the first 20 minutes of the game, their hosts clearly were committed to playing with more passion than they've displayed all season. Manning did his part by throwing three touchdown passes behind a strong offensive line, and running back Dominic Rhodes (25 carries, 73 yards) carried the load for a backfield that lost both Joseph Addai and Mike Hart to injury.

Nothing would deter the Colts on this day.

That, of course, had to be a reassuring sight for Indianapolis fans everywhere. Ever since the Chicago Bears beat up the Colts in a season-opening, 29-13 home loss, Indianapolis had been struggling to find some kind of offensive cohesion. Manning didn't have his trademark chemistry with Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The points weren't coming in bunches, as they have in preceding years. And there was a strong indication that the Colts were starting to show their age, starting with the 36-year-old Harrison.

[+] EnlargeReggie Wayne
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanColts receiver Reggie Wayne (87) beat the Ravens' Corey Ivy for a 22-yard score Sunday.

They needed two last-minute rallies -- one in Week 2 at Minnesota and the other last week's miraculous comeback from 17 points down at Houston -- to avoid a possible 0-4 start. In the ultracompetitive AFC South, which produced three playoff teams last season and where the Tennessee Titans are undefeated and in first place currently -- the Colts are fortunate to be 3-2.

We'll get a better measure of these Colts as they visit the Green Bay Packers and the Titans in the next two weeks; those are just the appetizers before the seemingly annual showdown with the New England Patriots on Nov. 2 is followed by another road game, at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 9.

But what became apparent Sunday is that patience was all the Colts really needed. For one thing, the knee operation that sidelined Manning for most of training camp had a much larger impact on this team than anybody could have foreseen.

"This really feels like my first week of the season," Manning said after throwing for 271 yards and compiling a gaudy 134.7 passer rating against Baltimore. "All I've ever known was taking every snap in every practice and game. It was frustrating to not be able to be in a situation where I was putting my stamp on this offense."

That being said, Manning's absence was just one of the issues the Colts have been trying to work through this season. Because Harrison missed 11 games in 2007 and most of the offseason with a knee injury of his own, he needed to catch up on his chemistry with Manning. The offensive line also had been hit by the injury bug, which led to three rookies finding their ways into the starting lineup. The end result was shoddy protection, fewer deep balls and far less respect from defenses.

To their credit, the Colts didn't let those struggles frustrate them to the point where they felt the need to make major changes in their approach. Instead, they simply worked harder. In fact, Manning admitted that he spent more time working on long passes to Harrison, Reggie Wayne and other receivers during practice last week so he could be more efficient. The Colts weren't perfect in their effectiveness Sunday -- especially not when a fourth-quarter, 63-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Wayne was nullified due to a holding call -- but they were pleased with the progress.

This is the performance that Indianapolis needed to see. "We've just been a little off," said head coach Tony Dungy. "You could see some signs of that today when the touchdown was called back and with some of the penalties we had. But we had a lot more sharpness today. We had more energy."

Now the Colts have to find a way to maintain that rhythm. Judging from Sunday's effort, one could see them doing that. It's rare to see a defense as talented and as proud as the Ravens' get overwhelmed by an opponent. A rarer sight: watching the Colts go as long as they just did without showcasing their own intimidating talent pool.

But maybe that's the biggest problem the Colts face. They've been so prolific for so long that it's easy to take their success for granted. We can forget that injuries and a lack of practice time for key performers can affect the show in the same way they do for any other franchise.

"When we just play average, people are far more critical of us," said center Jeff Saturday. "They expect us to score 35 points a game and that's just not going to happen all the time. Sometimes you have to just grind it out, and I'll take those wins, too."

Saturday's teammates would surely agree with those comments. But let's also be real here: The Colts are a team that is built around a powerhouse offense, and they're going to need that dominance to continue turning their season around. It's fine for other teams to win ugly. This squad, on the other hand, needs performances like the one it produced Sunday to remind us that their decline remains a long way off.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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