Time to walk the walk

ROB LONGLEY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Out of an infuriating, frustrating defeat may have come the key to the Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts. It didn't matter that snow was falling and the temperature was freezing after last year's loss to the New England Patriots -- the Colts braintrust was boiling mad.

Normally mild-mannered Colts coach Tony Dungy accused the Patriot defenders of cheating in their AFC Championship win. Dungy accused the eventual Super Bowl champions of banging receivers around illegally, taking the horsepower out of his high-octane offence.

And normally bombastic Colts general manager Bill Polian took it a step further. In the off-season, he was part of a lobby to the league rules committee to toughen the rules for illegal mugging of receivers.

The league complied by ordering officials to crack down on contact in the secondary and humbled defences around the league have seen the result.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, already one of the most prolific in the league, shredded the opposition this season. His 49 touchdown passes are an NFL record and his 4,557 passing yards a model of talent and efficiency.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

As if Manning needed an edge.

So two questions will begin to be answered this afternoon when the Colts come out firing at their home RCA Dome in an AFC wild-card playoff against the Denver Broncos.

First, will the NFL officials continue to call illegal contact or will they turn into NHL zebras and swallow their flags in the playoffs?

And secondly, can the NFL's No. 1 offence overcome its 29th-ranked defence and make a serious playoff run which, if the seeds hold, would include road games in both New England and Pittsburgh?

Whatever the result, it almost certainly will be entertaining to watch.

"I think everyone loves points to be scored and people running fast all over the field," Broncos safety John Lynch said this week. "And I think there's a tendency to think that No. 1 offences can't be stopped."

Lynch doesn't think so, not for a minute. He was, after all, a key member of the Tampa Bay Bucs defence which shut down the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl two years ago and nearly bumped off the St. Louis Rams three years back.

That Rams team was known as The Greatest Show on Turf, a blockbuster show the Colts seem bent on making a sequel.

They can put up points by the bushel -- the 520 the Colts scored in the regular season made them just the 10th NFL team to top 500. And like the Rams, they are built to succeed indoors on offence and to hope for the best on "D."

"They are wholly committed, as they should be," Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick told the Indianapolis Star this week. "That's where their assets are to their style of play.

"Everything is geared toward that explosiveness with the offence. It's all inter-connected."

There is a little irony to the distribution of resources on Indy's roster.

Dungy was a defensive guru with Tampa, essentially building the Super Bowl-winning defence of two years ago though he missed out on the spoils after leaving for the Colts.

With almost $26 million US of the $80 million in salary cap invested in Manning, receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James, Dungy must play with the cards given him. In other words, there's not much to spend on defence.

As the Broncos found out in a 41-10 loss in an AFC wild-card game last year, that deck is stacked on offence.

But get the Colts outside and try to slow them down and it can be a different story.

The Patriots did just that in the AFC Championship at their home Gillette Stadium this past January when they banged and bruised the Colts into submission.

Last week in Denver, the Broncos tried to send a message that they would like to do the same today by beating up on the Colts' reserves.

Lynch was fined $75,000 for a head-to-head hit on tight end Dallas Clark. Afterward, there was no apology, just a nod to the game plan.

"If a team's playing basketball on grass, you have to hit them in the mouth," Lynch said. "That's what New England did to them last year. That's what we were trying to do to them (today)."

Naturally, the Colts reject the notion that they are loaded up with "soft" receivers. The trio of Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley all had 10 or more touchdowns, the first time a single team had done that in a season.

They also have a power running back in James who, thanks to Manning's exploits, this season amassed the quietest 1,548 rushing yards you will ever see.

"These guys have done things that nobody in NFL history has done," Dungy said of his receivers. "I'll take about 10 or more 'soft' guys like this."

The Colts have been accused of being plush on the other side of the ball as well. Earlier this season, CBS analyst/loudmouth Shannon Sharpe ripped into the Colts, comments that have been resurrected this week.

"I have a better chance of hitting a grand slam home run in Yankee Stadium with a toothpick than they have of winning a Super Bowl with that defence," Sharpe said.

When a unit is ranked 29th of 32 overall, you open yourselves up to such criticism. But there is some evidence the ranking is misleading. The Colts also have the NFL's leader in sacks in Dwight Freeney and have the league's best turnover margin.

Should the Colts win today, or any other weekend this playoff season, it isn't likely the defence will dominate the conversation, however.

Manning got one block off his shoulder last year when he led the Colts on two playoff runs. That and a record-setting season are now history.

Now it's showtime.

"The regular season is over, we had a good run," Manning said. "As far as anything statistically, it doesn't carry a lot of weight in the playoffs."


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