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Do these Colts have what it takes to go the distance?

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton manning knows his NFL history. He sees his name among the great quarterbacks who have won league MVP honors: Joe Montana, John Unitas, John Elway, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw.

He also knows something is missing.

Is this the year Manning gets that elusive championship ring to accompany his second straight Most Valuable Player award? Could be.

In none of Manning's previous six seasons with the Colts has his team been so well-positioned to challenge for a title. The offense is performing at an almost unfathomable pace, thanks to Manning's precise passing and the superb skills of receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, plus running back Edgerrin James and tight ends Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark.

The defense, while hardly in the class of the other three remaining AFC contenders, has improved. It has enjoyed the advantage of playing from ahead because of how prolific Manning and company have been. It has two playmakers in Dwight Freeney and Rob Morris, and a terrific coach in Tony Dungy.

The Colts also are not a ''dome team,'' as Dungy readily points out.

''We don't subscribe to the indoor-outdoor theory,'' Dungy says. ''We have a better record on the road than at home since I've been here.''

Actually, it's the same 17-7 at home and away.

Where they have a terrible record, however, is against New England. And that's where the Colts (13-4) play Sunday, versus the defending champion Patriots (14-2), a club that often befuddles Manning with intricate defensive alignments and shifts.

Forget the weather, which hasn't necessarily been the problem for the Colts. Their failures against the Patriots, including a defeat at the RCA Dome in the 2003 season, are due to Bill Belichick's schemes that have thrown off the always-prepared Manning.

But this edition of the Colts seems to possess a different mind-set than the team that claimed it could handle the Patriots in recent meetings, then failed.

''Your confidence has to be that you're playing well and we're playing more consistently at the end of the year than last year,'' Dungy says.

''At New England,'' said Manning, referring to last January's AFC championship game, ''I played like an absolute dog. There's no question about it.

''We have to play great up there against a great team.''

So are they capable of doing so, of eliminating a team that has won all six of its playoff games with Belichick as coach and Tom Brady as quarterback?

Yes. Here's why:

n The Patriots, even with a week off, are not completely healed. They are hurting most in the secondary, a very bad situation when facing Indianapolis. And their best lineman, Richard Seymour, has an injured knee.

n Manning is operating on an unprecedented level, and he has more weapons to choose from than ever. Wayne has become a premier receiver, not just a complement to the brilliant Harrison. Stokley is a perfect slot man. Both tight ends are especially dangerous near the end zone. The offensive line gives Manning enough time to go through his progressions — and nobody reads progressions better.

''I've never left the field saying I could have done more to be ready,'' Manning says. ''I don't think I do more than any quarterback should; I give it the attention it deserves.''

n The officials' stronger emphasis on not allowing receivers to be mugged downfield, a direct result of last year's AFC title game, favors the Colts.

n The Colts aren't intimidated by the Patriots.

''I don't think anybody in our building would say we can't go up there and beat them,'' Dungy says.

''Part of what we have to do is realize it is just football, even if it's the playoffs and New England. We make the big plays, we'll win.''

Few teams have made more big plays this season than the Colts.



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