Manning, Colts seek playoff breakthrough

ON THE NFL

December 21, 2003|By KEN MURRAY

Eleven months ago, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts suffered a 41-0 playoff beating at the hands of the New York Jets. The loss reverberated through the offseason, exacerbated by kicker Mike Vanderjagt's charge that neither Manning nor coach Tony Dungy had provided appropriate leadership.

That saga will come back to haunt Manning for as long as he goes without a playoff victory. It will shadow Dungy until he takes a team to the Super Bowl.

This might be the season for both to shake the nightmare.

Don't be fooled by the Kansas City Chiefs' big-strike offense or the New England Patriots' 10-game winning streak. The Colts (11-3) have a more balanced team than the Chiefs, and they easily could have halted the Patriots' winning streak in Week 13 when they were left at the New England goal line with suspect play-calling and a 38-34 loss.

That dreadful loss last January has forged a new resilience in the Colts and a steel will in a quarterback who doesn't accept losing.

Sound familiar, Baltimore?

Right now, the Colts hold the third seed in the AFC, good for a home game but no first-round bye. A Kansas City loss and two Indianapolis wins in the final two weeks will elevate the Colts to a No. 2 seed and valuable first-round bye.

Ridiculed as playoff soft a year ago, the Colts seemed to shed that label with a clutch 29-27 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville in Week 14. They have won four of their past five games and haven't lost two in a row this season.

Dungy has steadily transformed their once-limp defense into a competitive unit, big on turnovers with 13 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries.

As big as that is, it's the inspired performance of Manning that has made the Colts a Super Bowl contender. His numbers paint a Most Valuable Player portrait: 28 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions, a league-high 3,901 passing yards and a career-best completion percentage of 67.5.

Manning has 10 touchdown passes and only one pick in the past five weeks. MVP front-runner?

"He's been especially hot probably the last six weeks," Dungy said."... To me, he's right up there with everyone else, whether we've got the best record or not. But if we're up there with everyone else, it would be hard for me to vote against him."

The playoffs - and vindication - await.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

No harm, no foul

The nine-game winning streak of the Philadelphia Eagles is all the more remarkable because of their problems defending the run. They rank 23rd in the NFL in run defense, giving up 127.8 yards per game. But during the winning streak, they've been shredded for 160.9 rushing yards a game and 5.4 a carry.

Miami's Ricky Williams became the sixth running back in the past eight weeks to go over 100 yards against the Eagles. Still, coordinator Jim Johnson isn't panicking.

"Do I want to be a great run defense? Yes," Johnson said. "Is it the most important thing? No. I'm just not sure you can score a lot of points with the running game. The only time I'd worry about [stopping the run] is if we were behind and we couldn't get a team off the field."

Miami's no-fire zone

If the Miami Dolphins miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year, it almost certainly will cost coach Dave Wannstedt his job. It also would be new territory for the Dolphins.

The franchise hasn't fired a coach since George Wilson was dismissed after a 3-10-1 season in 1969. Don Shula and Jimmy Johnson ended their coaching tenures in Miami by retiring.

Quick exits

Then there are the Oakland Raiders. Since Al Davis took control of the team in 1963 as general manager, he has hired 10 coaches, including himself. Three of those coaches were fired after the first or second year - Joe Bugel, Mike White and Mike Shanahan.

Where that leaves Bill Callahan is uncertain, given the team is a dismal 4-10. Callahan has to win one of the last two games (vs. Green Bay and at San Diego) to avoid the worst record in a post-Super Bowl year.

Decision pending

Because quarterback Mike McMahon will become a restricted free agent in March, Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci wants to give the third-year veteran some playing time in the final two weeks.

Mariucci said McMahon needs to play not because of a lack of confidence in Joey Harrington, but because the Lions need to make a decision on McMahon as the permanent backup.

Down, not out

The Minnesota Vikings didn't re-sign Gary Anderson because they didn't want to waste a roster spot on a kicker who can't kick off, but after signing journeyman Leo Araguz off the street last week, they're the only team in the league with two punters.

Vikings coach Mike Tice made the decision to add Araguz after rookie punter Eddie Johnson mishandled a snap for the third straight week and had a net average of 29.3 yards in a loss in Chicago. He didn't cut Johnson, though, saying he still has a future with the team.

Two-minute drill

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