- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- For the Indianapolis Colts, the 2005 season might come down to one game: Monday night, Nov. 7 against the New England Patriots. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxboro, Mass., and as a much as the Colts don't like to admit it, this offensive machine can't stop breaking down along this road.
The Patriots have won six straight against the Colts, 10 of 12 during the Peyton Manning Era. So clearly, New England has been the nemesis during Indy's quest for a Super Bowl title. Other franchises have had similar dilemmas. For years, the Cowboys couldn't get past the Vince Lombardi-coached Packers. The Raiders and Houston Oilers were derailed by the Steelers in the 1970s.
For the Colts, it comes down to one game, one team.
"It kinda reminds me of college," said Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, formerly of the University of Miami. "Florida State beat us every year until my senior year. It was a little of the same with Virginia Tech. So I've kinda been there before. This is my fifth year here. I guess I'm a redshirted senior and I'm in my fifth year. We've got to figure out a way to win."
What they can't figure out is why the gears go haywire in the presence of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"We just hope we will be there to be in that position," tight end Dallas Clark said of meeting with the Patriots for a chance at the Super Bowl. "We usually are firing on all cylinders. Sometimes we outplay them. Sometimes they outplay us. They just made bigger plays. If there is a third-and-6, we'd get five yards. Then, we make mistakes we haven't made all year. It just catches up to us."
This goes beyond the brilliance of Belichick's schemes. Edgerrin James was stopped three times from inside the 2-yard line on the game's final drive during a home loss to the Pats two years ago. A key James fumble was part of the loss in the season opener at New England last year. Belichick's pass defense is complex but it's designed to force mistakes by the offense. Manning, not known for committing a lot of turnovers, has made some crucial mistakes against New England to kill the Colts' offensive momentum.
"We just need to be on the same page in these games," Wayne said. "It seems like every time we go against them, we seem to lose focus. We get away from things we've been doing all year. We believe in the system. If we do what we do, we should win. Every time we play them, though, we have turnovers or we just have some brain fart here."
Colts coach Tony Dungy isn't panicking. As a coach, he knows his players can't just worry about one game. They have to worry about the season as a whole. And the schedule is set up nicely for the Colts to have possibly another 12-4 year. Dungy stressed in meetings the odds against winning a third consecutive division title and going 12-4 again, but the Colts' machine seems headed in that direction again. Thanks to a schedule that includes the weak NFC West, the Colts have the second-easiest schedule in the AFC, facing opponents with combined 129-127 records.
The team's work ethic should put it beyond taking teams for granted. Manning spends a great deal of time perfecting routes and plays with his teammates. His is a thinking man's game, soliciting defensive responses with his gyrations at the line of scrimmage while calling plays and making audibles.
In games, he's never completely satisfied. In practices, he knows things can be done better. The entire offense works toward perfecting plays and turning as many drives into touchdowns as possible. The checklist of improvements on offense has already started.
"We had 37 false starts last season, 31st in the league and those are drive killers," Manning said. "I know Coach Dungy brought up a stat. If you have a sack on a drive, then you only have a 7 percent chance of scoring on those drives. We did well for scoring touchdowns in the red zone last year, but there were some cases where we had to settle for field goals. We couldn't punch in some drives. We were No. 1 in turnover ratio last year, but we can still cut down on the 17 turnovers we made."
The key to life as a member of the Colts' offense is preparation and patience. Why patience? Much of the Colts' offense is Manning's ability to pick up defensive looks at the line of scrimmage. He'll see a hole in the defense based on alignment and make an audible at the line of scrimmage. This makes the game cerebral.
"The way teams play us now, you don't want to throw it deep down the middle," Manning said. "You throw it short and try to get yards after the catch. Teams mix coverages against us so you never now. You prepare but that's what keeps me up studying at night. We'll change it up.
"In the New England opener, we had 12 running plays in a row. Against Green Bay, we threw it for the first 25 plays of the game. Defenses are willing to change and we are, too."
But there is one constant: the offense keeps getting better. Brandon Stokley emerged as one of the league's peskiest inside threats and is coming off a 68-catch, 1,077-yard season. Wayne had 77 catches and 1,210 yards primarily running routes to Manning's left. Marvin Harrison caught 86 passes for 1,113 yards on Manning's right. Combined, they accounted for 37 of Manning's NFL-record 49 touchdown passes.
The release of tight end Marcus Pollard creates more adjustments in the offense. Former first-round pick Clark has to step up and become the main tight end. Unless backup tight ends Ben Hartsock or Bryan Fletcher step up as receiving options, the Colts will shift into more three-receiver sets. They would like to get Dominic Rhodes on the field in passing downs to take advantage of his route-running.
"We used a lot more three-receiver sets last year," Harrison said. "We will do what the defenses dictate to us. Whatever is takes to put as many points on the board as we can is what we will do."
Defensively, the Colts keep loading up on athletes built more for quickness than bulk. The team averaged almost 33 points a game. Because the Colts should score in the first couple of possessions, they play with the lead and force teams into more passing situations. Therefore, the team wants pass rushers, and are loaded with Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and others.
"Playing against our offense, that makes our defense that much better and we get better every day," said Freeney, the Pro Bowl defensive end. "The defensive line is back from last year. We led the NFL in sacks . A lot of people don't pay attention to that. We probably have the one of the lightest defensive lines in the league but we fly around."
But that is where the Patriots neutralize the Colts' strength. Because Colts' defenders are light, they don't match up as well against teams who can pound the ball against them on the ground. Few teams can score with the Colts so few teams can get into their running offense. The Patriots have Tom Brady, who works his "move-the-chains" passing offense to perfection. Because the Patriots and Colts usually juggle leads through the first three quarters, the Patriots can use all their weapons against the Colts' defense and hope their defense forces a mistake or two to win a game.
"With their system, the Patriots dink and dunk the ball with 3- and 5-yard passes," Freeney said. "They really don't try to get it down the field. They also like to run the ball or use a short pass like a run. They try to keep our offense off the field and that prevents them from getting into a rhythm."
So, the Colts prepare and wait until Nov. 7
"We just have to continue to get better and improve," Dungy said. "That's what I've drilled into players. I told them not to expect New England to fall apart and self-destruct. They have a good organization with a good team. We just have to better."
One game. One team. The wait continues.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
21hMel Kiper Jr.
2dEric D. Williams