Now that Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in NFL history, has replaced
Mike Vanderjagt, whose last-second miss cost the Colts a chance to win a
divisional playoff game last January, the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle
is in place. A platoon at running back, veteran Dominic Rhodes and rookie
Joseph Addai, will offset the departure of Edgerrin James. Peyton Manning and
his trio of terrific receivers will continue to put up plenty of points. And
with defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (22 1/2 combined sacks in
2005) on the loose, no opposing quarterback will get comfortable enough to
The Colts consider a division title their birthright. Since the AFC South was
created in 2002, they have led the division for all but seven weeks. But the
postseason is a different story: Over the same period Indianapolis has not been
to the Super Bowl and has played in the AFC Championship Game once. Another
playoff flameout last year-after the Colts had won their first 13 games of the
regular season-caused the team's veterans to do some soul-searching. "Are
we underachieving? I think we are," says Freeney. "But ask any of the
31 teams that don't win the Super Bowl, and they'll probably say the same
season essentially began four weeks after the playoff defeat to the Steelers,
on the sideline at the Pro Bowl, when Manning and wideout Marvin Harrison
started discussing how to reverse their postseason fortunes. "I told
Marvin, 'You know what next season's got to be all about? Finishing,'"
Manning says. "Finishing every drill, every drive, every sprint strong.
We're the type of team that so often starts out on fire but doesn't continue
through the fourth quarter. I've been concentrating on that all through the
off-season and in camp."
defense gave up the second-fewest points in the league (247), that unit also
needs to close out games better than it did last year. The Colts yielded 15
fourth-quarter points to Jacksonville (but hung on to win 26-18) and 10 to San
Diego (and lost 26-17) in back-to-back December games. Opposing quarterbacks
completed a league-high 67.4% of their passes against Indianapolis, and enemy
ballcarriers picked up 4.4 yards per attempt. (Only four teams were worse at
stopping the run.)
bringing in new players to improve on those numbers, the Colts instead gambled
that a lighter, quicker Corey Simon (who lost 25 pounds during the off-season)
will be a more disruptive force as part of a three-tackle rotation, and that
228-pound Gilbert Gardner is strong enough to take over a starting outside
linebacker spot. Coach Tony Dungy has built playoff-caliber defenses around
small, fast players before. Team president Bill Polian says the high completion
percentage can be attributed to the inordinate number of passes made to running
backs in long-yardage situations but acknowledged, "We do have to improve
in the yards-per-rush stat. We just have to tackle better."
And, as Manning
points out, the Colts have to finish the season better. In the playoff loss to
Pittsburgh, they trailed 21-3 entering the fourth quarter, then rallied to set
up a game-tying kick that failed. "That's history," says Dungy.
"I've always believed the end of one season has nothing to do with the
beginning of the next."
10 at N.Y.