WHEN DWIGHT FREENEY was growing up in Hartford, halfway between Boston and New York City, he chose to be a Giants fan because, he says, "the Patriots weren't very good then." Maybe it's karmic payback that now, 15 years later, Freeney's Colts seem capable of beating every team in the league except New England. Indianapolis has dropped nine in a row to the Patriots, including losses to open (27-24) and close (20-3, in the divisional playoffs) the 2004 season. "Now when I go home, I have to hear it from all the Patriots fans," says Freeney, a defensive end, shaking his head. "Then you got the ones loyal to me, who can't stand [New England]; they're always fighting with the Patriots fans."
This year the fighting won't start until the teams meet in November, but already the hype is overwhelming. "The 2005 season might come down to one game: Monday night, Nov. 7, against the New England Patriots," declared one sports website. The Colts grumble about the attention on that game--"It's as if the rest of the season doesn't matter," says Freeney--and they have good reason. Against the Pats, Peyton Manning's record is 2-10, and his quarterback rating is almost 10 points lower (82.9) than his career mark in regular-season games (92.3).
Part of Manning's frustration can be traced to New England's clock-munching, move-the-chains attack, which keeps the Indy offense on the sideline and unable to establish a rhythm. This in turn puts pressure on the Colts' defense, which, according to team president Bill Polian and coach Tony Dungy, missed too many tackles and gave up too many big plays in the '04 season. "We got interceptions, got sacks and caused holding penalties," says Dungy. "We just need to get more consistent. We've got to be a team that flies around and creates havoc in the run game and really pressures the passing game."
Indy's pass rush is strong, led by Freeney (16 sacks) and situational rusher Robert Mathis (10 1/2), but the young secondary remains a work in progress; last season the team ranked 28th in pass defense. Second-year free safety Bob Sanders played in only six games in '04 and is small (5'8"). Third-year strong safety Mike Doss battled hamstring problems. To help the unit, Indianapolis spent its first-round draft pick on Michigan cornerback Marlin Jackson. At 6 feet and 196 pounds Jackson is an explosive, physical player who has good closing speed. "He's perfect for what we do," says Dungy. "He's going to be a good tackler, a guy who's opportunistic and brings energy."
Though it's a lot to ask a rookie to elevate a team's pass defense, Jackson benefits from practicing against the best receiving tandem in the league, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. "It can be rough," Jackson says. "I got beat this morning by Marvin. I had broken up an out route earlier, and I hesitated on this play. I thought [the out route] was coming again, but he took off and Peyton put the ball right on the money. That's what I'm learning now: When I open up and go, I can't hesitate."
The rest of the defense hasn't changed much. To vary the fronts Dungy says he plans to move Mathis around more; last season he primarily played at left end opposite Freeney in passing situations. "We're going in the right direction," says Freeney of the defense. "It's kind of similar to how Tampa Bay's defense was built. This year we need to form an identity. We didn't have that last year."
No one is worried about creating an identity on offense. Still, Manning, who has won back-to-back MVP awards, regularly went into Dungy's office in the off-season with a handwritten list of things he wanted to work on. "He talks about us being better in the red zone, better ball security, ways we can get guys the ball differently," says Dungy. "People ask me, 'Can he improve?' He may not throw 49 touchdown passes, but I think he'll play better."
The Colts' schedule is the second easiest in the AFC (opponents were a combined 129-127 in 2004), which means they should at least duplicate last year's 12-4 record. Of course, to most there's only one opponent that matters. And when it comes to those Patriots, perhaps Mathis puts it best when he says, "Until you do something about it, you're going to hear about it. We just have to do something about it." -- Chris Ballard
With the departure of Marcus Pollard (a free agent who went to Detroit), former first-round pick Dallas Clark becomes the team's primary tight end. And he should be a big factor in the passing game from the get-go if Peyton Manning and coach Tony Dungy follow through on their plan to spread the ball around more. Fast and agile enough to line up as an extra wideout, Clark last season averaged 16.9 yards per catch, best on the team. Expect him to at least double the 25 receptions he had in 2004.