In the second week of the 2004 season, the Vikings made their return to Monday Night Football, only to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles. They will try to get it right again, but will face an equally formidable opponent in the Indianapolis Colts tonight. Former Vikings assistant coach Tony Dungy got the Colts to the AFC title game a year ago and he's looking to advance even farther this season. Like the Vikings, the Colts have a familiar tone to their team — a rock solid offense and a defense looking to improve.
When talking about the Colts, it doesn't take long to get to quarterback Peyton Manning. A star who had the tag of never being a solid playoff quarterback, Manning was co-MVP of the league last season and there was little questioning his selection. A student of the game, Manning is one of the best field generals in the league. He is adept at reading coverages, disguising what he plans to do, and delivering the ball with pinpoint accuracy. If the Vikings are to have a chance of silencing the Colts, shutting down Manning and keeping him on the move with be priority No. 1.
While the Colts are known as a passing offense, the running of Edgerrin James is just as critical. A true every-down back, James is expected to carry the ball 20-30 times a game and serves as a solid safety-valve receiver for Manning in the passing game. More than two years removed from major knee surgery, James may not have the blazing burst he had prior to the injury, but he is still one of the most dominant RBs in the game. He's backed up by Dominic Rhodes, a solid change-of-pace back, but expect to see a steady dose of James throughout the game.
Where the Colts are the most dangerous, however, is in the receiving corps. It used to be that Manning would lock on Marvin Harrison, who along with Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, is viewed as one of the game's top big-play receivers. But Harrison is far from the only weapon. Reggie Wayne has developed into a game-breaking No. 2 receiver, and Brandon Stokley has the speed to get deep and make big plays.
As if the wide receivers weren't going to pose enough of a threat on their own, the Colts also have a pair of playmaking tight ends in Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark. Pollard has been a red zone favorite of Manning for years and Clark, a first-round pick in 2003, is expected to be the next big downfield threat from the tight end ranks — joining the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap as the most dangerous TE threats in the league.
In order for the offense to click, the offensive line has to do its part, and this group has been solid as a unit. At the tackles, Tarik Glenn is a Pro Bowler and Ryan Diem has developed into a strong right tackle — keeping the heat off of Manning. The interior line doesn't get a lot of recognition but does a very good job at run blocking and pass protection. Center Jeff Saturday is in his sixth year, and guards Tupe Peko and Rick DeMulling were both draft-day afterthoughts who have worked their way into the starting lineup. If the Vikings are to neutralize the Colts offense, getting pressure in the middle from Kevin Williams and Chris Hovan will be a must.
On the defensive side, the Colts still have some problems the Vikings will no doubt look to exploit.
On the line, defensive end Dwight Freeney has become one of the game's top pass rushers in just his third year. Freeney has been a dominant double-digit sacker. He is joined by ends Raheem Brock and Brad Scioli, who isn't as prolific as a pass rusher but is solid in the run game — much like the Vikings' Kenny Mixon. In the middle, the Colts use a three-man rotation of Josh Williams, Montae Reagor and Larry Tripplett. Williams was given a big contract last year, but he hasn't been as dominant as the Colts would like, leaving the middle of the line vulnerable to strong running teams.
David Thornton leads a linebacker crew that has lost veterans Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington to free agency the last two years. Thornton is a solid tackler on the weak side and makes plays everywhere on the field. He is joined by middle linebacker Rob Morris and strongside linebacker Cato June. Morris is a lunch-pail worker who gets the job done but doesn't make the game-changing plays (sacks, interceptions, fumbles, etc.) that make a middle linebacker great. June is a second-year linebacker taken in the sixth round and was thought to be a year or more away from starting, but with the failure of former Viking Jim Nelson to hold down the job, June is learning while he's earning.
The secondary is suspect at the corners, which won't be good news with Daunte Culpepper and Co. coming in. The main cornerback spots have fallen on Jason David, Nick Harper and Joseph Jefferson. They are in their first, fourth and third years, respectively, and Harper was the closest thing to a full-time starter last year. At safety, second-rounder Mike Doss made a splash as a rookie starter last year and gives the Colts continuity at strong safety. At free safety, part-time starter Indrees Bashir has been holding the starting spot, but there are definitely troubles with this unit. This is a relatively inexperienced group, and teams like the Patriots and Jaguars have proved they can get burned, and now the whole secondary has been shuffling to make up for a rash of injuries.
When you see these two teams side by side they look almost identical — overpowering offenses that can maul weaker defenses, along with defenses of their own that have been lit up by experienced quarterbacks with weapons. This game screams of a 41-38 shootout — with the team with the ball at the two-minute warning winning.
PEYTON MANNING vs. DAUNTE CULPEPPER — While this, like the Week 2 matchup between Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, isn't an on-field matchup, it will without a doubt be the matchup to watch. ABC's "Monday Night Football" crew likely won't give the audience any choice but to compare and contrast the styles of Culpepper and Manning.
As Manning went from a young talent to a Pro Bowler, his knock was that he couldn't win big games — from critical regular-season games to playoff games. He was great at times, but on the big stage he choked. He was always putting up great numbers and had a go-to receiver, a solid running back and little else. And, somehow, it wasn't enough.
Now, read that paragraph again and substitute the name "Culpepper" as the second word. The same résumé would fit.
Both spent their formative years locking and loading with one primary receiver. For Culpepper it was Randy Moss. For Manning it was Marvin Harrison. In 2003, Manning got the talent assembled around him for receivers — Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark — and suddenly he became the best in the game. He realized he didn't have to go to his primary passing weapon all the time to succeed. That ability to confuse defenses and spread the ball to a half-dozen or more players made the Colts more dangerous and Manning the top quarterback in the league.
Culpepper is at the same exact position in his career at this moment. From the opening day of the 2004 season, he has been spreading the ball around to many different receivers. Marcus Robinson, Nate Burleson and Jermaine Wiggins have all stepped up and given defenses a lot more to worry about downfield than just Moss. With Moss out tonight, Culpepper will have to go through his progressions even more studiously.
It has helped both teams that they have dominant run offenses. Edgerrin James can carry a game, as can the Vikings' stable of running backs. But this game is going to turn into an attack shootout, and Culpepper and Manning will be in the middle of all it — both on the attack. They could post record-setting numbers if both are on their games — making this the matchup the football world watches.
Let The Track Meet Begin
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