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Indy's 2006 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."
Though the 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.)
Instead of 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. Giants