Bumps in road should make Colts better

At 8-0 at the season's midpoint, the Colts are the clear favorite in the AFC. But the Colts have had to fight for wins this year, and that toughness should help down the road, writes Michael Smith.

Updated: November 9, 2006, 10:39 AM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- No, they don't award championship trophies for 8-0 starts.

They should, however, think about giving the Indianapolis Colts some kind of medal for getting through the first half unbeaten, beaten up as they are.

When it comes to the Colts, it's easy to miss the trees for the forest, and this has to do mostly with their playoff failures the past four years. It's easy to take for granted what they've done and what they're doing during the regular season and focus instead on whether they'll actually be able to get it done in the postseason this time.

Tony Dungy
Greg M. Cooper/US PRESSWIRETony Dungy is 56-16 (regular season) in four-plus seasons as the Colts head coach.
It's the teams that claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season that get the glory, but let's not overlook the history the Colts have made. Not since Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers did it three straight times (1929-31) has a team started back-to-back seasons 8-0.

And crazy as this might sound, the Colts being perfect at this point might be, all things considered, among the biggest surprises of 2006. Yes, we've seen this movie before in Indianapolis, but this is a different script with a different cast of characters.

The Colts must fight and claw for wins this season. That kind of toughness tells us the Colts have what it takes to survive and not shrink in tough playoff contests.

Just look at the guys they have, or rather, the guys they don't have: In the offseason, the Colts lost linebacker David Thornton and defensive tackle Larry Tripplett to free agency. Defensive tackle Corey Simon is out for the season with a mysterious arthritic condition in his knee. Safety Mike Doss also is done for the season. Safety Bob Sanders, around whom the Colts' defense is built, played in just his second game Sunday night against New England.

Those are just the problems on defense. On offense, the team's all-time leading rusher, Edgerrin James, went to Arizona via free agency. How the Colts would replace Edge was one of the league's bigger preseason questions. Indianapolis' offense likes to employ three wide receivers, but the third guy, Brandon Stokley, has played only 15 plays this season. So the Colts have had to evolve into more of a two-tight end offense.

NFC: It's a mystery
The Colts are the popular pick to emerge from the AFC, but is there really a favorite in the NFC?

The Giants are the hottest team in the conference (five in a row) and, with the Bears suffering their first loss, have become the flavor of the month. But the Giants are beat-up on defense, too, and are always one Tom Coughlin controversy from changing everyone's mind about them.

Folks initially started to doubt the Bears seriously after they nearly lost to Arizona. Chicago again was sloppy Sunday against Miami. Young Rex Grossman tends to get careless with the football.

The Saints no longer are just a feel-good story but legit contenders. But a Super Bowl team? And then there's the franchise's history of second-half collapses and early postseason exits, although in fairness, this is a different group.

Meanwhile, Seattle is trying to keep it together until its stars return from injury.

Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas, Minnesota, Philadelphia, St. Louis -- none seems to have figured out what it wants to be. The NFC definitely has a wide-open feel about it.

-- Michael Smith

And those were just the issues they've had to deal with on the field.

Defensive tackle Montae Reagor was injured in a car accident en route to the Redskins game two weeks ago. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne's brother, Rashad, died in an automobile accident Sept. 24, the morning of the Colts' win over the Jaguars.

Yet here they are again, the league's last undefeated team (they started 13-0 last year) and the clear favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLI. Indianapolis' status as the team to beat was cemented by consecutive wins at Denver and at New England, a feat that earned the Colts the distinction of being the only team in NFL history to win back-to-back games on the road against teams 5-1 or better.

The Colts, not coincidentally, have found ways to win a la the Patriots circa 2001-04. The Week 2 win over Houston is the only one that hasn't been close. The Colts used to have a reputation for being soft, for caving to pressure. Now there's grittiness, a resolve, a mental toughness on this team that might have been missing in the past. Indianapolis didn't really have to dig all that deep last year during the regular season because the Colts were able to make it look so easy. Teams didn't make them play 60 minutes.

This edition of the team clearly can handle adversity. The Colts win ugly and rise to the occasion. They've gone from winning to just knowing how to win, and yes, there is a difference. Sunday night, for example, middle linebacker Gary Brackett missed the second half with a hamstring injury. Because his backup, Rob Morris, was inactive with an injury, the Colts had to go with rookie outside linebacker Freddy Keiaho in the middle.

There's a confidence on the Colts' sideline that, somehow, someone -- and it hasn't always been Peyton Manning -- will make the play they need. It definitely starts with Manning, who somehow has managed to elevate his already-tight game further. Teams have tested him and not let him make as many big plays, but he has remained patient, made adjustments and done whatever is necessary to win. Coach Tony Dungy says that when teams play the pass, Manning is more comfortable relying on his running game than he was three or four years ago because he has developed confidence in his teammates. He doesn't feel as though the only way the Colts are going to win is by getting the ball to Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne. He trusts guys such as tight end Dallas Clark more.

And now many have come to believe in the Colts despite the fact they've disappointed before. The Colts don't defend the run well (opponents average 5.3 yards per carry, worst in the league) but nonetheless have shown they have the heart as well as the look of a champion.

"I'm proud of the way we've responded [to the Steelers loss]. It was a gut-wrenching loss last year. It's the kind of game that can floor you. No question, guys go in the tank. But you gotta make your peace with the football gods."
Peyton Manning, Colts QB

"This is a different team," Dungy said Sunday night. "We're not playing quite as sharp as we did last year, but we're finding ways to win.

"We're in a lot more close games, and it just seems like every week it's someone else, some other unit, and whatever it takes that particular week, so that's good. I like that about our guys."

In the AFC, it's the Colts and everyone else; they proved that the past two weeks. Despite all their personnel losses, they've remained the Colts, which is to say they've remained consistent. They've lost two regular-season games in their past 33 that they actually set out to win.

Although outsiders remain skeptical about whether the Colts also will be a different club in the postseason than in years past, Indianapolis -- and this can't be overlooked -- deserves credit for tuning that kind of talk out and not joining in on overlooking the regular season. They're approaching each game in the same professional manner. Winning each one, improving week to week, taking one game at a time -- all the boring clichés -- these things matter to the Colts even when everyone around them is telling them that all that matters is the postseason.

Bob Sanders
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyColts safety Bob Sanders returned to the lineup against the Patriots after missing five games.
It has been speculated that the Colts, because they weren't winning as impressively this season, were bored and just waiting for the playoffs. Preposterous. Thanks to the leadership and example set by guys such as Manning, Harrison, center Jeff Saturday and offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, the chemistry is still good. The focus and attention to detail are strong.

The Colts aren't stuck in the Pittsburgh loss at home in the playoffs last season, when it looked as if Indy had set itself up perfectly to get to the Super Bowl. Nor are the Colts looking beyond Sunday's game against Buffalo.

"I'm proud of the way we've responded [to the Steelers loss]," Manning said Sunday night after passing for 300 or more yards for the third straight game, a first in his career. "It was a gut-wrenching loss last year. It's the kind of game that can floor you. No question, guys go in the tank. But you gotta make your peace with the football gods. If you sit around and feel sorry for yourself long enough, you'll be 0-5 to start the next season."

Another important difference between these Colts and previous editions is that this group is more likely to be playing its best toward the end of the season as opposed to peaking early. For example, now that Sanders is back in the lineup, and the more defensive tackle Anthony McFarland gets used to playing with his new teammates, the run defense has a chance to get better.

If nothing else, come playoff time, the Colts certainly will be adept at dealing with adversity.

"I think that's a good thing," said Manning, who has thrown only three picks this year. "I think, hopefully, that can help us later in the year. We've had some players banged up, but guys are stepping up. We don't spend a lot of time whining or complaining about it. Whoever's in there, go in there and make a play. But hopefully we can get some of those guys back and get healthy, and we can be an even better team."

Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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