After three losses in four games, the Colts are looking …
Anything but Super

The Indianapolis Colts’ quest for an unbeaten season ended last month.

A first Super Bowl trip for Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Tony Dungy? Even with a 10-3 record, tied for second best in the AFC? Forget it.

Not after Sunday’s 44-17 loss in Jacksonville in which the Colts gave up 375 yards rushing – 8.9 yards per carry. Yes, someone must have tackled Maurice Drew or Fred Taylor at some point – it just wasn’t obvious to anyone who watched live or saw the lowlights afterward.

As it turns out, all the alarm about the loss of Edgerrin James to free agency was misplaced. The Colts should have worried more about the defection of two more less glamorous guys: David Thornton and Larry Tripplett. And about the injury to the right knee of safety Bob Sanders, who is their best defender after Dwight Freeney and certainly their best tackler.

Add in the traffic accident that cost them Montae Reagor for the season and the unspecified illness that put Corey Simon out and you have a debacle like Sunday’s.

That leaves the Colts last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 176.5 a game, almost 25 yards more than the next worst team.

Indy isn’t the only team limping toward the playoffs – or limping away from them.

Defending NFC champion Seattle managed to lose in Arizona on Sunday to a team that’s starting to improve under Matt Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner. That might have cost the Seahawks a first-round bye, although who knows in the challenged NFC? Dallas, which also looked as if it might get one, also lost.

And Denver continues to slide after a self-inflicted wound by coach Mike Shanahan. He decided when he replaced Jake Plummer at quarterback with rookie Jay Cutler that he would take the hit this season in hopes of winning big when Cutler has experience.

But Indy is built to win now. It was built to win last season, when it started 13-0, or in the past few years, when it lost to New England – the only blemish on the resumes of Dungy, Manning and Harrison is the lack of a Super Bowl trip. That looks increasingly unlikely this season.

“It’s fixable,” Dungy said Sunday, recalling that one of his teams in Tampa lost 45-0 in Week 14 and still made it to the NFC title game. “We are going to have to get it fixed to get where we want to go.”

This is different – the Colts’ run defense was leaky even when they were 9-0.

Nor is it likely than anything can be done in the remaining three regular-season games. Sunday’s deluge had to be an embarrassment to a coach who built his reputation on a defense that he learned from Chuck Noll, he of the Steel Curtain that won four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh three decades ago. Steel Curtain? More like tissue paper.

The reasons aren’t hard to find.

One is the salary cap, which has had the Colts hemorrhaging defenders for years – the latest being Thornton, a linebacker who went to Tennessee as a free agent and Tripplett, a defensive tackle, who signed with Buffalo.

That prompted the Colts to move Raheem Brock, who started at defensive end last season to tackle, where he was expected to team with Simon. Simon was obtained last year from Philadelphia and slimmed down to fit Dungy’s profile of slim, mobile defensive linemen – no 350-pound pluses (Ted Washington, Sam Adams, Keith Traylor, Tony Siragusa).

But Simon is on the reserve non-football injury list and the ranks were thinned further when Reagor was hurt Oct. 22 when his SUV was struck by a car while he was en route to the RCA Dome for the Washington game. He is out for the season.

But even before they lost Reagor, there were problems, stemming in part from Sanders’ absence and the decision to move Robert Mathis, who led the team with 111/2 sacks last season, into Brock’s starting slot at end.

The problem: At 235 pounds, Mathis is 40 pounds lighter than Brock and can get plowed under by 320-pound offensive linemen, especially when he is playing on a bad knee.

Brock, no matter how quick, is light to play inside. Anthony McFarland, drafted by Dungy when he was in Tampa, was obtained at the trade deadline, but hasn’t really been the answer.

Beyond that comes what Dungy thinks can be “fixed” – the tackling.

Against Jacksonville, everyone was fanning. Drew and Taylor were at the linebacker level so fast, that Cato June, Gary Brackett and the rest were grabbing air if they even managed to get in the way. Would Thornton and other former Indy linebackers – Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington to name two – have done the same?

In the end, it’s just another reason why there are no dominant teams in the NFL and haven’t been for a decade.

The salary cap makes everyone relatively even (except teams like Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington and a few others, where the owners haven’t figured it out.)

So even though Manning is making just $1 million on paper this year and Harrison is getting $2 million, the signing bonuses ($34.5 million for Manning and $11.5 million for Harrison) take up a lot of space.

Add Reggie Wayne, whose new deal has a $13.5 million bonus and a $2.6 million salary and the big bucks obviously are on offense.

OK, when you have Manning, Harrison and Wayne, you make your commitment there, as the Colts have for all of this decade. And there’s not much they can do about the health problems of Sanders, Reagor, Mike Doss and the problems with Simon.

But the offense hasn’t been what folks are used to, either – it’s scored 17 points or less in four of its last five games.

Three of them have been losses.

That means the road to the Super Bowl is likely to be through San Diego, not Indy. And that the Colts could find themselves playing Cincinnati or (gasp!) Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs.

Watch Maurice run.

And watch Peyton sit.

AP-ES-12-11-06 1716EST

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