Colts' foe is AFC South, not Eli Manning

BY Alex Marvez • September 17, 2010

Oh, brother.

The nauseatingly excessive Peyton vs. Eli media hype for Sunday night’s “Manning Bowl” between Indianapolis and the New York Giants has overshadowed a much juicier and pertinent topic:

Is the dynasty built by the Colts football family about to crumble?

A rival clan — the Houston Texans — staked claim to AFC South supremacy after last Sunday’s 34-24 season-opening victory. Tennessee and Jacksonville also won. The Colts are in the division basement for the first time since Peyton Manning’s rookie campaign in 1998.

That’s also the last time Indianapolis was 0-2 — a mark that would put the franchise’s eight-year playoff streak in jeopardy. Avoiding this is far more motivation than helping big brother Peyton best little brother Eli for bragging rights.

“For this team, the jury is still out,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett told after Friday’s practice at Colts headquarters. “After last week, you won’t see a team that’s confident beyond all ability like last year when we had seven fourth-quarter comebacks.

“It’s one of those things where you’re still trying to get a feel for it. But I know this team is very fast, very smart. It’s just a matter of executing.”

Basically, doing what the Colts couldn’t against the Texans.

Houston was expected to push Indianapolis for AFC South supremacy, but last Sunday’s bullying was unprecedented. Houston never had a running back gain as many yards (Arian Foster with 231) or as much luck pounding Manning (two sacks and eight other hits). In the process, Indianapolis lost hard-hitting safety and defensive linchpin Bob Sanders — again — to what may be a season-ending biceps injury.

“We made a lot of mistakes that are uncharacteristic of what we do,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “The concern is you don’t really know your team yet, so you don’t want it to be the rule. You want that to be the exception.”

I’m betting that it is.

Give the Texans credit. This was a mini-Super Bowl for a franchise that had beaten Indianapolis only once in 16 previous tries. Psychologically, Houston needed to topple the Colts to affirm its standing as a legitimate contender. Indianapolis already has that well-deserved cache.

The Colts also have weathered far worse before.

A 3-4 start in 2008 with Manning still battling the effects of an offseason staph infection? Indianapolis won its final nine contests to finish 12-4.

The doom-and-gloom scenarios when Jim Caldwell replaced Tony Dungy as head coach last season? Indianapolis opened 14-0 and reached Super Bowl XLIV.

The retirement of future Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison, injuries, key free-agent departures ... None of this has stopped the Colts from capturing seven of the past eight AFC South titles.

And the biggest reason why that dominance may continue: Manning is still at the top of his game. The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player completed 40 of 57 passes for 433 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Houston.

But even with all this history of success, Saturday says he “absolutely” understands why some critics believe the Colts are ripe for a fall.

“You look back at how many times we’ve started 9-0, 7-0 or whatever,” he said. “We get on these little runs early in the season. It’s not often we get stumped. But the reality is it’s one (game) out of the 16.”

If he’s stressed about the 0-1 start, Caldwell isn’t showing it. Sharply dressed in a black T-shirt and designer jeans, Caldwell actually looked more rested and relaxed Friday than during his club’s 2009 winning streak.

A strong week of practices helped. Caldwell is confident the Colts have addressed the problems that surfaced against Houston. The defense worked on run fits and gap integrity to avoid a repeat against New York’s one-two rushing punch of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.

The offensive line should be more cohesive with Saturday and left tackle Charlie Johnson making their second starts after being sidelined with preseason injuries. Caldwell also is hoping for more offensive balance to take weight off Manning’s shoulders. Indianapolis – which had the NFL’s 32nd-ranked ground game in 2009 --rushed just 10 times against Houston.

“Things don’t change a whole lot with us,” said Caldwell, a Colts staff member since 2002. “The dynamics are pretty much the same because we have a real solid core group of veterans who have kept some consistency in that area. We fight to keep that culture as close to the core as we possibly can.”

Added Brackett: “We have a formula for success that works around here. I don’t think there are many things that need to be changed.”

One alteration that Caldwell did make stemmed from the team’s Super Bowl loss to New Orleans. Cognizant of how runner-ups often stumble the following season, Caldwell started his offseason program later than usual to “make certain we had enough time to let our bodies and minds recover. When we came back to work in the latter part of May and early June, guys were eager to get rolling.”

The Colts now have to start rolling over the opposition once more or risk falling further behind their AFC South rivals. That challenge starts with Eli Manning and Co.

“People have written us off before,” Brackett said. “Ask them how that went.”

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