DATE CREATED: 12/19/08
Eight-game winning streak and Manning's play hides problem areas
Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
The Indianapolis Colts are always going to get an opponent's attention. But they're not striking terror into the hearts of their opponents this year. Anxiety, yes, but terror, no.
They're in the playoffs, thanks to the fourth-quarter heroics of Peyton Manning and his pals. But the only statement they made in their come-from-behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night was that they can be had.
Beating them isn't easy. It never is when Manning is at the controls and Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are running routes. They showed it again against a mediocre Jacksonville team that jumped out to a 14-0 lead and didn't let the Colts tie the game until midway through the fourth quarter. The Colts won it with an interception return for a touchdown, but as they have so many times this year, they made it a lot harder than it needed to be.
The defense came up with two big plays, the interception and a Dwight Freeney sack of David Garrard on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line that ended the game and preserved a 31-24 victory.
The Colts' eighth straight win put them in the playoffs for the seventh straight year and gave them their sixth straight 11-win season. Those are impressive numbers, but they've been compiled mostly against second-tier teams. And most of the wins have been agonizingly close.
Thursday night was no different. The Colts let a team that had just five wins jump out to a 14-0 lead and needed to score 17 unanswered points to secure the win. Indianapolis' defense, which showed little interest in tackling anybody for most of the night, allowed 409 total yards to a Jags offense that was averaging 318 yards and was 20th in the league in total offense and 24th in scoring offense.
The Colts started the season 3-4 and didn't start rolling until an 18-15 win over the New England Patriots on Nov. 2. The following week, they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-20. Since then, they've beaten a string of losers and few of them have been easy: the Houston Texans by six, the San Diego Chargers by three, the Cleveland Browns by four, the Cincinnati Bengals by 32, the Detroit Lions by 10 and now the Jags by seven. That's eight wins, with just two of them by more than a touchdown.
On the one hand, the Colts have shown a remarkable ability to win games late, a quality that is a hallmark of great teams. On the other hand, they've shown an equally remarkable ability to struggle against both the league's better teams and its worst teams.
The Colts also are almost totally dependent on Manning. They came to Jacksonville 30th in the league in rushing with an average of just 80 yards a game and 3.4 yards per attempt. Thursday night, they made those numbers look enormous, collecting just 32 yards on the ground in 18 attempts - an average of 1.8 yards per carry.
What saved them was Jacksonville's inability to get to Manning. They tried blitzing him and paid by surrendering big passing plays. They tried not blitzing and paid by surrendering shorter gains to receivers who had plenty of time to get open.
The Jags didn't have a single sack, and Manning made them pay, completing 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
If you were looking for a blueprint on how to beat the Colts, the Jaguars provided it, even if they couldn't carry it through. The first step is to run against the Colts defense and eat up clock, keeping Manning on the sideline. The second is to stop Indy's weak running attack. The third - and critical - step is to put pressure on the best passer in the game.
That's where Jacksonville failed, and it's why it lost the game. The Jags let Manning stand in the pocket and pick his receivers. When they got a little pressure on him, he just moved around a little, bought some time, and continued to pick apart the coverage.
On Dec. 28, the Colts finish against the Tennessee Titans, who beat them 31-21 on Oct. 27. The Titans didn't sack Manning in that game, but they intercepted him twice and held him to 223 yards passing on 26 completions in 41 attempts.
The Colts had a 14-6 third-quarter lead in that game and gave up 25 unanswered points before scoring a cosmetic touchdown with 1:17 left in the game.
Manning was still not in peak form back then. He was still finding his groove after missing most of training camp because of two offseason knee surgeries. He's a better quarterback now, and the Colts' record reflects that. But the team still hasn't shown that its defense is good enough to take it back to the Super Bowl.
Indy's a wild card no matter what happens in the season's final week. Tennessee may or may not need the game to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Just the same, that game now looms large as a real test of how good the Colts are. They're in the playoffs, but they still have to show they're a team that can win it all.
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
For more Football coverage, visit http://www.nbcsports.com