Czarnecki: Don't Count Out the Colts Just Yet

FOXSports.com's John Czarnecki says that the Patriots are off to a great start, but people should stop overlooking the defending World Champion Indianapolis Colts.

We're not even to the midseason point and most talking heads are saying what we saw last Sunday from Texas Stadium was this season's Super Bowl prelude. We live in the world of instant gratification and, yes, the Patriots are off to a great start; they have become a scoring machine. And the Cowboys aren't bad.

To which, I ask, what about the defending champions? The Colts are also unbeaten and, if they beat Jacksonville on Monday, they will become only the third team in NFL history to start three consecutive seasons 6-0. Without question, the Colts suffer from being in Indianapolis. It's all about location, location and location. Indianapolis isn't a sports media market unless you're talking auto racing or maybe college basketball. It's like we have forgotten that the Colts even exist, let alone just won a Super Bowl.

"I think our team likes all the talk about New England," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Usually there's a lot of pressure on a club to repeat, but nobody is really talking about that, including the players. And that's a good thing."

Dungy doesn't have to create a motivation speech. All this constant New England chatter is motivation enough. It's like Indy's past achievements don't count. Teams are gunning for them, but it's been that way in their division for a while now.

Just for a little history reminder, back in August, the NFL majority was writing and saying that San Diego had the best talent in the NFL and that Randy Moss, who was hiding in the locker room, would end up being a cancer with the Patriots. Now, the Chargers are so desperate to remain a viable factor in the AFC that they surrendered a second-round pick for receiver Chris Chambers and Moss merely leads the NFL with eight touchdown catches and seems to love playing with Brady.

What is also being ignored is that the Colts are a better team than they were a year ago. The NFL has become a game of speed and the Colts are quicker and faster than the Patriots overall. In fact, Patriots coach Bill Belichick rebuilt his receiving corps based on how explosive the Colts have been. Belichick knew he needed a ton more speed in order to compete with the Colts and that's why he traded for Moss and Wes Welker and signed Donte' Stallworth. So far, it's worked to perfection.

This is another one of those seasons where the talent pendulum has swung toward the AFC. The Cowboys probably rank behind the Patriots, Colts and Steelers right now and could have trouble with the resurgent New York Giants when they visit on Nov. 11.

How good, though, are the Colts?

Well, in their last game, the Colts whipped the Tampa Bay Bucs — possibly the third-best team in the NFC — without Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison, one of the game's best change-up runners in Joseph Addai and hit-machine Bob Sanders (and we all know what this remarkable safety means to that Indy defense).

"They still just toyed with us," said a Tampa Bay insider. "They dropped into their cover two, preventing any big plays, while not minding one bit about giving us five yards a carry. On the opposite side, we still couldn't stop them."

In that game, rookie Anthony Gonzalez played Harrison's spot in the offense for the first time and had his best game as a professional. Gonzalez figures to only get better.


Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

But let's consider why the Colts must be mentioned in the same breath with today's darling, the Patriots.

Peyton Manning, in some circles, is considered a better quarterback than Brady. Yes, Brady has thrown more touchdowns (21 to 10), but they are both efficient passers (70 percent completions) and no one can say Brady outworks Manning. Just attend a Colts' midweek practice and you will learn how much detail Manning knows. He constantly instructs his receivers how to run certain routes because he has noticed tendencies or weaknesses in the player responsible in coverage. Yes, in years past Belichick used to get into Manning's head, but those days are over. The Colts have won the last three meetings, including two consecutive blowouts in Foxboro.

The offensive lines of both teams are very similar. They function very well as a unit, but the Colts may be stronger in the middle, led by center Jeff Saturday. Manning has been sacked three times; Brady has been dumped six times.

As much as I am impressed with Moss, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne is faster and just as good at catching the deep ball. Harrison is getting old, but would you really take Welker or Stallworth over him? The Patriots have been getting by with Sammy Morris at running back because Laurence Maroney (groin) always seems to be hurt. Addai is a more complete back than either one of those two.

At tight end, the Patriots have two options in Ben Watson and veteran Kyle Brady, but Dallas Clark, the hero of last year's playoffs, has better hands than either one of them and Ben Utecht is reliable in short-yardage. Clark already has five touchdown catches.

Flipping to defense, this is where the Colts' speed shines. The Patriots don't have anyone as quick as Dwight Freeney on the defensive line and inside linebacker Gary Brackett is faster than Tedy Bruschi. The Pats have a decided edge with Adalius Thomas and Rosey Colvin, but New England's secondary doesn't match the Colts for overall speed. Yes, Rodney Harrison remains a fierce tackler and blitzer, but he can't run with a healthy Sanders. Dungy's secondary may be inexperienced by comparison, but it will only improve as the season progresses.

The bottom line is that both of these teams are gearing up for January, when their real season begins. It's all about home-field advantage and the Colts host the Patriots in two weeks. That game will provide somebody with all the bragging rights and you can't tell me the Pats should be favored in that one.

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for FOX NFL Sunday since its 1994 inception. You can read all of his columns at FOXSports.com.

 


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