FOR THE first timein a long while, the Colts looked like themselves on Sunday. After fivestraight nail-biting wins, they thumped the hapless Bengals 35--3 inIndianapolis, getting three touchdown passes from Peyton Manning, a 67-yardcatch-and-run by wide receiver Marvin Harrison, four sacks and threeinterceptions from the defense, and a huge sigh of relief from a sellout crowdthat had begun to wonder if high-scoring, lopsided victories were a thing ofthe past.
The question nowis whether this was a breakout performance from a team that has finallyregained its stride after a 3--4 start, or simply a good day against a badclub. The answer may not come until the playoffs, because Indy closes againstwinless Detroit, struggling Jacksonville and the front-running Titans, whomight rest their regulars if they've locked up the AFC's No. 1 seed by Week17.
So what is theColts' true identity? "We're trying to figure that out," said tight endDallas Clark on Sunday. "It's been a different year for us, [with] Peytonmissing camp and the preseason because of the knee injury, and the offense notputting up big numbers. A lot of the things we're doing aren't what the Coltsare used to."
From 2003 to '07Indy's offense ranked fifth or better in the league every year in total yardsand averaged 32.6 points per game; this season it's 20th in yards, and scoringis down by more than 10, at 22.5 points. In four of the five wins before theBengals game Indy had to overcome second-half deficits, and in the other theColts needed a last-second field goal in San Diego after squandering a 10-pointsecond-half lead. "It's good that we've been able to play in close gamesand win," says coach Tony Dungy, whose Colts are outscoring opponents byjust three points per game. "I told our team that the last month is reallywhat the NFL is all about—winning games in the fourth quarter, having to makeplays. It seems like the last couple of years we've been way ahead in thefourth quarter in the games that we've won. But this has been good for ourteam."
The Colts have hadto grind out wins because of a revolving-door lineup. Eleven regulars havemissed starts. Injuries to the offensive line—three starters have missed atleast three games—and to running back Joseph Addai (two games) have hamstrungthe ground attack, which is second to last in the league. Opponents havecapitalized by taking away Indy's trademark downfield pass. The Colts, who had53 completions of 20 yards or more last year, have just 29 with three games togo. In 2007 Manning had 13 touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer; this yearhe's thrown just five. Stripped of its usual daring, Indy has been forced intoa more disciplined, horizontal offense.
Like the offense,the D has been hit hard by injury. It appears to be finding its stride, nothaving allowed a touchdown in its last two games. "I don't know how teamsview us right now," says defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is well awarethat Indy is better known for hot starts and cold finishes, "but whetherwe're under the radar or have a red dot on our chests, you've got to go outthere and ball. If they see us coming, we've got to hit them in the face. Ifthey don't see us coming, we've got to hit them in the back of the head.Doesn't matter. Just get it done."
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G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/GETTY IMAGES
LOOSE END Harrison's 67-yard catch-and-run against Cincy was old school Colts.