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Attention Turns Toward Colts

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Nov. 6 -- The Indianapolis Colts are at it again. They reached the halfway point of their season as the NFL's lone unbeaten team by defeating their former nemesis, the New England Patriots, on Sunday night. Quarterback Peyton Manning once more is performing like the league's most valuable player.

But these Colts are not the same dominant, versatile club as last season's version, which won its first 13 games. There's been little talk, at least thus far, about these Colts being one of the greatest teams ever or chasing the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. Until Sunday, they mostly had been nudged out of the national spotlight by the Chicago Bears. And that's just fine with them.

"We went through it last year, and that helps," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said after his club won its eighth game by beating the Patriots, 27-20, at Gillette Stadium. "Our guys know it's really not about unbeaten seasons."

Last season, the Colts remained undefeated until a Dec. 18 loss at home to the San Diego Chargers. But they didn't even reach the Super Bowl, dropping an AFC semifinal at the RCA Dome to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

These Colts looked vulnerable in their first 5 1/2 games. They needed a comeback to beat the then-winless Tennessee Titans at home in their fifth game, and trailed the Washington Redskins at halftime two weeks later. They don't have tailback Edgerrin James, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent in the offseason. Their defense ranks last in the NFL against the run.

But they still haven't lost. They won at Denver and at New England on consecutive weekends. And they still can put up points on anyone: They scored on 10 straight possessions (excluding two end-of-the-half kneel-downs by Manning) over the two games.

"This is a different team," Dungy said. "We're not playing quite as sharp as we did last year, but we're finding ways to win. We're in a lot more close games, and it just seems like every week it's someone else, some other unit and whatever it takes that particular week. So that's good. I like that about our guys."

A year ago, the Colts could beat an opponent just about any way they chose. If a defense fretted about Manning and wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the Colts could craft methodical drives featuring James. If an opponent stacked defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop James, Manning and his receivers went to work. If the offense somehow struggled, the defense could pick up the slack.

But defensive tackle Corey Simon is sidelined for the season and end Dwight Freeney has only half a sack. Playmaking safety Bob Sanders just returned from knee surgery. The offense, minus James, is more one-dimensional. Rookie tailback Joseph Addai, a first-round draft choice in April out of LSU, is becoming a solid contributor. But he's no James, not at this point, and Manning, Harrison and Wayne must carry the load. Manning threw for 326 yards against the Patriots, 235 of them on completions to Harrison and Wayne.

The Colts hope their struggles during this regular season -- relatively speaking, of course -- will steel them for what's to come in the playoffs.

"This year is totally different," Wayne said. "Hopefully that's a sign of a championship team."

Said Dungy: "I think I like where we are better because it is more of everybody and it's more like the real NFL, where you've got to really play and you've got to make plays in the fourth quarter and you've got to really assert yourself down the stretch. And we seem to be doing that."

The Colts had been the league's "other" undefeated team this season, coasting along while the Bears received more attention. But the Bears lost Sunday to the Miami Dolphins. The Colts know what's next -- more scrutiny, beginning with this weekend's game against the Buffalo Bills.

"The questions are going to increase," Manning said. "The coverage is going to increase. . . . But we'll come in next week getting ready to improve as a team, getting ready for Buffalo."

Dungy said that Bears Coach Lovie Smith "let me down. . . . I was hoping they would continue to win so they would get all that focus."

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