Colts thrive in underdog role

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The Indianapolis Colts have not lowered their expectations. They still envision a Super Bowl title next month.

Yet the Colts, burdened by a sieve of a run defense and an unimpressive final seven games of the regular season, entered the playoffs as more of an outsider than a championship contender. Judging by their performance in their postseason opener, that might be a very good thing for Peyton Manning and his team.

Not that they will ever go unnoticed as long as the premier quarterback of his generation is flinging the ball and rookies like Joseph Addai are outrushing the likes of Larry Johnson.

If the Colts were an NFC team, they could have booked flights to Miami for the first week in February. But being something of an afterthought in the loaded AFC could work in Indy’s favor.

The focus is on San Diego, with the gaudy 14-2 record, the 492 points scored, the MVP/Offensive Player of the Year (LaDainian Tomlinson), the leading sack man (Shawne Merriman) and five All-Pros.

And it’s on Baltimore, which has a defense reminiscent of the stultifying 2000 NFL champions, and an experienced, skilled and confident offensive leader in Steve McNair.

And, naturally, it’s on the Patriots as they seek a fourth title in six years, equaling the amazing run by the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Colts? Until they shut down Johnson with a defensive performance the Ravens would have bragged about, they were barely in the Super Bowl discussions.

“I think we have a very adaptable team and we play to the situation,” coach Tony Dungy said. ” I think we have an offense that can move the ball in a number of ways. Defensively, it’s always better when you play with the lead, but that hasn’t been the case. We haven’t had a lot of big leads this year. I think we’re going to be very well-prepared to go into Baltimore.”

They had better be, because Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott and Chris McAlister are primed for a championship pursuit.

But maybe the Colts are ready for this challenge – and other daunting ones.

Consider:

• Manning has not been at his best this season. Sure, he’s excelled far more than he’s bombed, but there have been instances, particularly last Saturday against the Chiefs, when he wasn’t the main reason Indianapolis won.

• The combination of Addai and Dominic Rhodes has ably replaced Edgerrin James, and Addai has more game-breaking potential than James.

• Marvin Harrison was a nonfactor against the Chiefs and Reggie Wayne was a supporting receiver. So Dallas Clark, the perfect antidote in the passing game to Baltimore’s active linebackers, caught nine passes for 103 yards.

• With tear-your-head-off safety Bob Sanders back in the lineup, Indy’s defense looked quite capable against Kansas City. It will need a similar effort in Baltimore, but before the playoffs began, speculation centered on whether Johnson would rush for 200 yards at the RCA Dome. He got 32 and his team got 44.

“We have a good defense,” said tackle Anthony McFarland, who played on a very good one in Tampa Bay and won a championship. “Regardless of what the critics say, if you go out and take it one play at a time and do your job, play fast and tackle, that’s the kind of performance you can get.”

Most significant, it’s quite possible the Colts have learned from past failures, including going flat in the postseason after an early clinching of the division. Dungy doesn’t think there’s an advantage to turning it on for the playoffs – he says it’s not “good strategy” – but it was clear from their domination of Kansas City that the Colts have a better feel for the postseason this January.

Does that make them a potent threat to get to the big game, where any AFC representative should win? This Saturday’s matchup with the Ravens should answer that.

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