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Snap Judgments (cont.)

Posted: Sunday January 14, 2007 6:49PM; Updated: Sunday January 14, 2007 10:03PM
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The Colts defense has allowed only one touchdown in two playoff games this season.
The Colts defense has allowed only one touchdown in two playoff games this season.

• Please, no more calls. We have a winner. The suddenly staunch Colts defense isthe story of the NFL playoffs thus far, and it's not even close.

The Colts defense wasn't just struggling as it entered the postseason. It was the most maligned unit in the league, with flaws that help produce almost historic rushing yardage totals for opponents. Even worse for Indy fans, the Colts showed absolutely no signs of having a chance to correct its problems before the tournament began. The critics had already written the obituary, and were just waiting for confirmation of expiration.

But for two weeks in a row now, the Colts defense has astounded both the critics and -- truth be known -- maybe even itself. In beating the Chiefs and Ravens, the Colts D has amassed the following totals in their eight-quarter renaissance: 14 points allowed (including just one touchdown), seven takeaways, five sacks, 370 yards of total offense surrendered, and a sterling 3-of-22 performance on third downs.

And that run defense that ranked last (by far) in the NFL, with 173 yards allowed per game? It has undergone a near miraculous transformation, giving up just 127 combined to Kansas City and Baltimore, or 63.5 per game. Two weeks in a row, the Colts have bowed their backs and refused to be run over by a power running team that was supposed to have an overwhelming edge against the undersized Indy defensive front.

Maybe this is the way it supposed to be for Peyton Manning and the Colts. Lower the expectations surrounding them in the playoffs, and their performance soars. They certainly tried it the other way around in 2005, with dreadful results.

• And how about Dominic Rhodes and the Colts running the ball down the throats of the Ravens' vaunted run defense with the game on the line on the Colts' game-clinching field drive? Who would have thought that would happened with the so-called "soft'' Colts imposing their will on the league's top-ranked defense?

Gotta love it when the well-worn labels get almost comically ripped to shreds before our very eyes.

• Is there anybody you want kicking for you in the playoffs other than Adam Vinatieri? Leave it to Vinatieri, a man with a horseshoe both on his helmet and up his, well, you know where....to hit the back of the cross bar and squeak through a key 51-yard field goal. Good fortune has always been his constant companion.

So far through two weeks of the playoffs, Vinatieri has been "money,'' as Colts head coach Tony Dungy was captured calling him after Vinatieri's game-clinching 35-yarder against the Ravens. And money well spent by Indy last offseason. He's the MVP of the Colts postseason so far, scoring 26 of Indy's 38 points on 8-of-8 field-goal attempts and two PATs.

• Early NFC title-game prediction: I like the Saints. If New Orleans and Chicago both play like they did this weekend, the Cinderella Saints might win by 14.

• It's hard not to love Drew Brees' comeback story and the electrifying ways of Saints rookie running back Reggie Bush, but why is it folks seem to forget how instrumental Deuce McAllister is to the Saints success on offense?

Playing in his first career playoff game, McAllister willed New Orleans to victory Saturday night in the Superdome, totaling 163 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns. Or maybe I should have said carried, given his memorable 5-yard third-quarter touchdown run, when he moved the whole pile into the end zone, carrying a collection of Eagles defenders on his back.

Brees and Bush are newcomers to New Orleans and have had great first seasons. But I'm happiest for a guy like the Deuce, whose six-year run in New Orleans had far too often been about disappointment, defeat and in Katrina-ravaged 2005, both displacement and discouragement (a season-ending knee injury after five games).

• If you've paid attention to this space this season, you know I never really bought into the idea Steve McNair had delivered a big-league offenseto Baltimore. McNair saved the day a few times early in the year with late game-winning rallies, but often they covered up for pretty mediocre to poor performances in the game's first 3 quarters.

Largely, Baltimore won this season the same way it has always won -- with ferocious defense that thrives on takeaways and creates short fields for the offense, and superb special teams (in both the return and kicking games). And there's no shame in that.

But in the playoffs, that formula can't always be counted on. And when Baltimore needed a dose of offense against Indy -- make that, any offense to speak of -- McNair and Co. couldn't become the difference makers. It was simply too late to ask the Ravens to change personalities at that point.

Let it be noted it was McNair who made the game's key mistake: His second-quarter interception at the Indy 1, by Colts rookie safety Antoine Bethea, was the moment when Baltimore's best shot at victory evaporated.

• It's altogether fitting isn't it? For years, Manning has hung up the prettiest of numbers in the NFL, but hasn't won the biggest of the big games. So now his puny playoff statistics leave us scratching our heads and asking, "What's wrong with Peyton?'', but he and his Colts are looking like the team of destiny in the AFC.



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