SHOWDOWN AT INDY

The AFC East race came down to the Dolphins and Colts last season, and it probably will be more of the same this year.<P>And that makes Sunday's showdown at the RCA Dome more important than just about any other game on the Dolphins' schedule this season.<P>

The Dolphins have had success as Indianapolis recently, taking the last three meetings there. Who can forget last year's improbable 17-14 victory when Miami was without Jay Fiedler and Lamar Smith. Or the previous year when Dan Marino rallied the Dolphins for a breathtaking 34-31 victory.

No team in the NFL has had more consistent defending Peyton Manning than the Dolphins, who may have the benefit of facing the Colts without Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James.

After missing last week's game against Buffalo because of a knee sprain, James skipped practice on Wednesday and Thursday. He is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but if he plays he clearly won't be at 100 percent.

That may be just enough to make the difference on Sunday.

What follows is a quick look at Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts

WHO: Miami Dolphins (5-2) vs. Indianapolis Colts (4-3)

WHERE: RCA Dome; Indianapolis, Ind.

KICKOFF TIME: 1 p.m. ET

TELEVISION: CBS (Greg Gumbel, play-by-play; Phil Simms, color; Armen Keteyian, sidelines)

LINE: Off the board

COACHES: Indianapolis, Jim Mora (4th year in Indianapolis, 15th year in NFL); Miami, Dave Wannstedt (2nd year in Miami, 8th year in NFL)

SERIES RECORD: The Dolphins lead 43-21 (the teams won both playoff meetings)

LAST MEETING: 2000 at Miami (AFC wild-card playoffs); Dolphins 23, Colts 17 (OT)

INJURIES: Dolphins — DT Jermaine Haley (thumb), S Brian Walker (thumb) are out; WR Dedric Ward (foot) is questionable; CB Jamar Fletcher (ankle), LB Twan Russell (quad) are probable.

Colts — RB Edgerrin James (knee), LB Rob Morris (knee), WR Jerome Pathon (foot) are questionable; DE Chad Bratzke (ankle), G Steve McKinney (head), LB Ryan Phillips (ankle), RB Dominic Rhodes (knee) are probable.

THREE MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

The Dolphins safeties vs. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning: A big reason the Colts are so difficult to defense is Manning's marvelous play-action fakes, which tend to freeze defenders for a second. The Dolphins can't be biting on those fakes.

The Dolphins special teams vs. the Colts kick returners: The Colts have not one but two very dangerous kickoff returners in Terrence Wilkins and rookie Dominic Rhodes.

The Dolphins offensive line vs. Colts outside linebacker Marcus Washington: Washington is the only Colts player to generate much pressure on the quarterback so far this season. The Dolphins need to make sure they pick him up on blitzes.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL: The Colts keep tinkering with their defense, but it didn't look like anything was different until last Sunday's 30-14 victory at Buffalo. It remains to be seen whether the Colts defense finally has jelled as a unit or whether the Buffalo game was an aberration. One thing for sure, the Colts defense is very young, in particular the secondary. Nine of the team's 12 DBs have less than two years of experience, including starters David Macklin (CB) and Idrees Bashir (S). The Colts have had major problems in pass defense at times this season, particularly against the Patriots and the Chiefs. The Colts don't have much of a pass rush beyond linebacker Marcus Washington, who has been terrific on the blitz. The Dolphins want to run in this game to keep the trio of Manning, Harrison and James on the bench, but have had no success on the ground since the second half of the Jets game. It is imperative that the Dolphins get Lamar Smith some room to run if they are to go anywhere this season. Indy doesn't have a great run defense, but the Colts figure to crowd the line of scrimmage. Smith rushed for a team-record 209 yards in last year's overtime thriller, and rest assured the Colts will take whatever measure necessary to make sure that doesn't happen again. But if the Colts overcompensate to stop Smith, it will be up to Jay Fiedler and the Dolphins receivers to make them pay.

WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL: The Dolphins did as good a job against the high-powered Colts offense last year as any team. The key to the Dolphins' success was their ability to limit the Colts' big plays (a 50-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcus Pollard was the one exception) and keep Marvin Harrison from getting loose deep in the secondary. Completely shutting down the Colts is virtually impossible; Indy hasn't scored less than 13 points in a game since late in the 1999 season. Because of Peyton Manning's ball-handling ability, he is difficult to pressure, so the focus shifts to trying to confuse him with different coverages. The big question mark heading into the game is the health of James. Backup Dominic Rhodes rushed for 100 yards against the Bills last Sunday but he isn't nearly the threat that James represents, either as a runner or receiver.

BOTTOM LINE:

The Dolphins and Colts have played some memorable games since Manning entered the NFL, with the past five meetings decided by seven points or less. There's no reason to think Sunday's contest won't be another nail-biter. The Dolphins have endured a lot of criticism while building a 5-2 record that has them at the top of the AFC East standings. But a victory at Indy — any way they can get it — would give them control of the division race. And then perhaps fans and analysts would stop talking about what's wrong with this team.


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