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Defence sets tone in Indianapolis

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While the Colts offence has been front and centre in team’s 16-game regular-season win streak, the men on the other side of the ball haven’t exactly been idle

There are times in sports where something looks so easy and automatic, it can simply blend into the background behind all that is new.

Consider the dominant storylines in the first half of the 2009 NFL season: The awesome New Orleans Saints and their high-scoring offensive attack; rookie head coach Josh McDaniels defying the odds with the Denver Broncos; Brett Favre wearing (and succeeding in) Minnesota Vikings purple; and just what the heck happened to the Tennessee Titans?

Falling between the cracks are the Indianapolis Colts, who very quietly have started 7-0 and run their string of consecutive regular-season wins to 16 – the equivalent of a perfect season – a feat accomplished by just eight teams in NFL history. (The New England Patriots’ 21-game streak in 2006-08 is the record.)

The only blemish on Indy’s résumé in the past calendar year? A sudden-death overtime playoff loss to San Diego last January, in which the Colts lost the coin toss and never got the ball as the Chargers marched down the field for a win.

“This is nothing new around here,” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said.

“We have done this year-in and year-out. Maybe there are a couple years when we haven’t, but we do this. There is something to it, but let’s not buy into the hype yet.

“You have to keep it small and think about the season in small, little segments and take the game for what it is. Then, you look at it some time in December or January, when it really matters and you are gearing for playoff position. But we really just want to keep our momentum going.”

One reason Indy isn’t garnering much attention is this marks the fourth time in five years the Colts have started a season at least 7-0. And while Indy’s 16-game run may not be as sexy the Patriots running the table in the 2007 season, in some ways, it’s more remarkable.

The nature of the NFL means good teams have to absorb many changes from year to year, as players come and go with free agency, trades, roster cuts or retirement.

Marvin Harrison isn’t catching passes for the Colts any more. Peyton Manning has thrown 48 passes and six touchdowns this season to youngsters Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie, who weren’t drafted until the later rounds the past two seasons.

Tony Dungy, one of the most respected NFL coaches of this era, is no longer patrolling the sideline in Indianapolis, having stepped down and replaced by long-time assistant Jim Caldwell.

The notion of promoting from within to replace a successful head coach has blown up on more than few teams over the years, but the Colts don’t seem to have missed a beat.

Caldwell is the first rookie head coach to open a season 7-0 since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

“He’s kept the program going full bore under the same general guidelines that Tony Dungy had,” Colts general manager Bill Polian told the NFL network this week. “But he’s done a great job putting his own stamp on the team.

“He’s been very direct, he’s been very demanding on what he wants. He’s done a great job getting them ready and husbanding their energy and taking us through a very tough first five weeks. He’s pushed all the right buttons, as we expected he would.”

And then there is that defence, the most overlooked aspect of Indy’s success, buried under the attention Manning rightly deserves for his passing exploits from week to week, including six 300-plus-yard passing games this season.

Indianapolis’s defence has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season – averaging just 13 per game – despite playing most of the season without star safety Bob Sanders.

Last week’s 18-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers was a good example of the other side of the ball stepping up for the Colts.

“That’s the mentality around here,” said Freeney, who has registered at least one sack all seven wins. “Defensive line, linebackers, safeties, corners, the defence in general. We want to be out there making plays when it counts. Put everything on our shoulders, that’s our mentality.”

At the end of last season, the NFL didn’t have a hotter team than Indianapolis, as the Colts’ unbeaten string included wins over the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Patriots and Chargers – plus the team that finished with the AFC’s best record a year ago, the Titans.

If not for an unfortunate coin flip last January, they might be defending more than an impressive win streak this season.

They might be defending a Super Bowl title.

The “perfect” season

2008

Week 9 – 1. Colts 18, Patriots 15

2. Colts 24, Steelers 20

3. Colts 33, Texans 27

4. Colts 23, Chargers 20

5. Colts 10, Browns 6

6. Colts 35, Bengals 3

7. Colts 31, Lions 21

8. Colts 31, Jaguars 24

9. Colts 23, Titans 0

2009

10. Colts 14, Jaguars 12

11. Colts 27, Dolphins 23

12. Colts 31, Cardinals 10

13. Colts 34, Seahawks 17

14. Colts 31, Titans 9

15. Colts 42, Rams 6

16. Colts 18, 49ers 14

Last regular-season loss

Oct. 27, 2008 – Titans 31, Colts 21 – Colts blow a 14-6 lead in the second half, as Tennessee rallies with 17 in the fourth quarter.

The Colts’ only blemish

Jan. 3, 2009 – Chargers 23, Colts 17 (OT) – Peyton Manning throws for 310 yards in an AFC wild-card playoff game, but never takes the field in overtime as the Chargers defeat Indy on the strength of 328 all-purpose yards from tailback Darren Sproles.

Five to Watch this weekend

1 Baltimore Ravens (4-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)

The Bengals try to make it four wins in a row over AFC North rivals, attempting to knock off Baltimore for the second time this season. Ravens are coming off a big win over previously unbeaten Denver.

2 Miami Dolphins (3-4) at New England Patriots (5-2)

The Dolphins continue their murderous schedule, this week visiting the bye-week rested Patriots, who have drubbed their previous two opponents by a combined score of 94-7.

3 Houston Texans (5-3) at Indianapolis Colts (7-0)

The Texans go for their fourth consecutive win, facing unbeaten division rival Indianapolis in a game featuring two NFL teams that live by the pass.

4 Dallas Cowboys (5-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-2)

A battle between two teams coming off decisive wins. With the New York Giants in freefall, the NFC East is suddenly up for grabs, as the Cowboys try to win their fourth in a row.

5 Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) at Denver Broncos (6-1)

A matchup of two of the NFL’s best defences. The Steelers are over their early struggles and will try to hand the Broncos their second loss in two weeks (and second of the season).

CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc

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