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Original Issue

Sad Sacks No More Dwight Freeney and the Colts' hard-hitting defense gave the Titans a dose of their own medicine

Before he was chosen with the 11th pick in the 2002 draft, Dwight
Freeney, a 6'1" defensive end out of Syracuse, was thought by
many teams to be too short to make an impact in the NFL. But he
looked 10 feet tall on Sunday when he made the biggest play of
the game for the Indianapolis Colts in their 29-27 victory over
the Tennessee Titans. Correctly reading the play, Freeney reached
high and deflected Steve McNair's pass on a two-point conversion
attempt with 1:57 remaining. "The best part," Freeney said,
stone-faced as he strode off the field at the Coliseum, "was that
I didn't even have to jump."

As Super Bowl contenders the Colts have come up short in recent
years, but by taking the fight to the Titans, rushing for 117
yards against the league's top-ranked run defense and forcing
four fumbles (three on kick returns), they gained control of the
AFC South at 10-3. It was one of the biggest wins in the six-year
career of quarterback Peyton Manning, who became the front-runner
for the league MVP award. And a much-maligned defense--the unit
hasn't produced a Pro Bowl player since linebacker Duane Bickett
in 1987--hung tough in the end. "We had to learn how to win the
nitty-gritty games," second-year coach Tony Dungy said. "Now we
can because our young guys are showing composure beyond their

The 25-year-old Freeney is so even-keeled, in fact, that Colts
defensive tackle Larry Tripplett says he has to tap him on the
shoulder during games to make sure he's awake. But Freeney's
stoicism belies an inner fire that was stoked first by the
predraft skepticism and then by his failure to win a starting job
at the beginning of last season. When he did start, in the ninth
game, Freeney made quite an impression, sacking Philadelphia
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb once and forcing three fumbles.
Freeney was in the lineup for the rest of the season, finishing
with 13 sacks, a team record, and nine forced fumbles. He has
continued to excel this year; his fourth-quarter sack of McNair
was his 11th of 2003, third best in the AFC.

With a quick burst and a knack for slapping the ball from the
passer's hands, Freeney has a style reminiscent of his idol,
former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. And as LT did,
Freeney is making big plays at crucial moments; on Nov. 2 he
sacked Miami Dolphins quarterback Brian Griese and forced a
fumble to preserve a 23-17 road win. "Dwight's so fast off the
snap, his size doesn't matter," Dungy says. "Once he's in the
backfield, his instincts take over. As a coach, you emphasize the
need for turnovers. But Dwight's ability to force fumbles is not
something that's learned. That's just Dwight."

On Sunday the Colts, who were coming off a 38-34 loss to the
AFC-leading New England Patriots, appeared in danger of a second
straight heartbreaking setback until Freeney delivered again.
Lining up for Tennessee's two-point conversion attempt, he
recognized the Titans' formation from the teams' Week 2 meeting
(also won by Indianapolis, 33-7) and knew that McNair would
attempt a quick slant to his left--Freeney's side--to wideout
Derrick Mason. Freeney took a step back, thrust his hands in the
air and tipped the ball away.

Two wins in their final three games will give the Colts their
first division crown since 1999. Asked about potential postseason
scenarios, Freeney demurred, saying, "We could still miss the
playoffs." Was there a reason to doubt the Colts' toughness any
longer? "Doubts? About us?" he replied with a smile. "What do you
think?" --Josh Elliott

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (FREENEY) CLUTCH Freeney (93) made the game's biggest play, while Manningwas his usual steady self.