Now that Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in NFL history, has replacedMike Vanderjagt, whose last-second miss cost the Colts a chance to win adivisional playoff game last January, the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzleis in place. A platoon at running back, veteran Dominic Rhodes and rookieJoseph Addai, will offset the departure of Edgerrin James. Peyton Manning andhis trio of terrific receivers will continue to put up plenty of points. Andwith defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (22 1/2 combined sacks in2005) on the loose, no opposing quarterback will get comfortable enough todominate Indianapolis.
The Colts consider a division title their birthright. Since the AFC South wascreated in 2002, they have led the division for all but seven weeks. But thepostseason is a different story: Over the same period Indianapolis has not beento the Super Bowl and has played in the AFC Championship Game once. Anotherplayoff flameout last year-after the Colts had won their first 13 games of theregular season-caused the team's veterans to do some soul-searching. "Arewe underachieving? I think we are," says Freeney. "But ask any of the31 teams that don't win the Super Bowl, and they'll probably say the samething."
Indy's 2006season essentially began four weeks after the playoff defeat to the Steelers,on the sideline at the Pro Bowl, when Manning and wideout Marvin Harrisonstarted discussing how to reverse their postseason fortunes. "I toldMarvin, '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 continuethrough the fourth quarter. I've been concentrating on that all through theoff-season and in camp."
Though thedefense gave up the second-fewest points in the league (247), that unit alsoneeds to close out games better than it did last year. The Colts yielded 15fourth-quarter points to Jacksonville (but hung on to win 26-18) and 10 to SanDiego (and lost 26-17) in back-to-back December games. Opposing quarterbackscompleted a league-high 67.4% of their passes against Indianapolis, and enemyballcarriers picked up 4.4 yards per attempt. (Only four teams were worse atstopping the run.)
Instead ofbringing in new players to improve on those numbers, the Colts instead gambledthat 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 that228-pound Gilbert Gardner is strong enough to take over a starting outsidelinebacker spot. Coach Tony Dungy has built playoff-caliber defenses aroundsmall, fast players before. Team president Bill Polian says the high completionpercentage can be attributed to the inordinate number of passes made to runningbacks in long-yardage situations but acknowledged, "We do have to improvein the yards-per-rush stat. We just have to tackle better."
And, as Manningpoints out, the Colts have to finish the season better. In the playoff loss toPittsburgh, they trailed 21-3 entering the fourth quarter, then rallied to setup 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 thebeginning of the next."
10 at N.Y.Giants
1 at N.Y.Jets
29 at Denver
5 at NewEngland
19 at Dallas
24 at Houston
NFL rank 22
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .484
Games against playoff teams 7
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE COLTS
> The Coltswon't miss Edgerrin James's running-Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai should bealmost as productive-but they will miss his blocking on blitzes.
> They'llalso miss David Thornton, a smart, mobile linebacker who signed with theTitans. Thornton was perfect for Tony Dungy's scheme.
> They get agreat rush from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but the middle of theirdefense is too soft. Look at how Pittsburgh went up and down the field againstthem early in the AFC divisional playoff. Their biggest need is a stout tacklewho can stuff the run.
> Speaking ofstout tackles, why did Corey Simon lose so much weight? He'll be quicker, butat 278 he'll get pushed around at the position where they most needstrength.
Getting AdamVinatieri, the NFL's best kicker, for less than 3% of their salary cap totalwas a move of genius.
He caught only 30passes at UCLA and was cut by three NFL teams in two years, but Fletcher founda home last season in Indianapolis. The lithe, 6'5" 230-pounder thrived inthe double-tight-end offense run by offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who, alongwith quarterback Peyton Manning, appreciated Fletcher's smarts andselflessness. He runs precise routes out of various alignments and gamelyexecutes his blocking assignments. Fletcher, 27, caught 18 passes last year,but Manning spent much of training camp looking for ways to get him the ballmore often.
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COACH TONY DUNGY(102-58 in NFL), fifth season with Indianapolis
ADAM VINATIERI(New Acquisition)
SACKS 11 1/2
SACKS 5 1/2
SACKS 6 1/2
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 16/3/3 DEFENSE 16/15/11
PETER READ MILLER
IRON MANNING The Colts' durable QB has missed only one play because of injury in eight pro seasons.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BIRKWITZ