FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The season is halfway over, but the most daunting question for the NFL's top team remains a long way from being answered: What's going to happen to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs?
The Colts are 8-0 for the second consecutive year, making them only the second team in NFL history to accomplish that feat. Beyond that, the Colts have essentially won 29 consecutive regular-season games which have mattered in the standings.
The issue, as the Colts know all too well, is that they must go from being part of a great trivia question to being a great piece of history.
"We know that people are going to be [asking] for the rest of the season, 'Can they win in the playoffs?'" quarterback Peyton Manning said after leading the Colts to a 27-20 victory at New England on Sunday night.
That victory gave Indianapolis a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC and essentially a three-game lead over the Patriots and Denver, whom the Colts have defeated in consecutive weeks. Like last year, when the Colts were eliminated by Pittsburgh in their first playoff game, the goal is for Indianapolis to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Colts are hoping to protect their passing game from both the outdoor elements and the officiating woes that come on the road.
But in order to take advantage of the home playoff games and reach the Super Bowl, the Colts must prove that they can play adequate defense in crucial spots. To that end, what Indy might have discovered is the proper defensive philosophy to go with the offense it has built.
That philosophy was made obvious in the victory over the Patriots, as the Colts came up with five turnovers, including a startling four interceptions against New England quarterback Tom Brady.
"That's what coach [Tony] Dungy told us we need to emphasize right now," defensive lineman Robert Mathis said. "Do whatever we can to get the ball back to our offense."
Forcing turnovers combined with a high-powered offense is smart overall strategy and plays into Indianapolis' overall philosophy of trying to protect its defense.
"What we're focused on is to get a lead early, jump on people quickly," Manning said. "We were able to get a lead against New England and get them in a little bit of a chase mode."
"Chase mode" is another way of saying that teams are getting desperate to play catch-up and, thus, are passing more than running against the Colts' defense. That ultimately protects Indianapolis' undersized defense, which ranks last in the league against the run and is allowing 5.3 yards per rush.
"Look, we know we're a smaller defense and if other teams want to just pound it, they're going to be able to do that," linebacker Cato June said. "That's what we are. But if we can get them into throwing the ball and take advantage of our speed … that's what a Cover 2 defense is about, using quickness to force turnovers."
Ultimately, the Colts are trying to do the same thing as teams in similar positions: cover up weaknesses.
In Chicago, for instance, the 7-1 Bears lost to Miami on Sunday after they committed six turnovers, including three interceptions by quarterback Rex Grossman. The loss was two games removed from a come-from-behind win over Arizona in which Chicago committed six turnovers, four on picks thrown by Grossman.
Grossman, who has started only 15 games in his four-year career because of injuries, is going through the typical inconsistencies of a young quarterback. However, the Bears don't have an easy time covering for Grossman because their offense revolves around him throwing the ball deep and then running the ball once they have the lead.
The Bears rode that strategy to five victories by 26 points or more. Like the Colts, Chicago plays with a smaller defense that is dependent on quickness.
"They caught some people by surprise early in the season with Grossman and [wide receiver Bernard] Berrian," an AFC executive said. "It's effective, but it's not impossible to stop. You throw a bunch of things at Grossman and see how he handles it."
Likewise, Seattle (5-3), once it gets healthy, will try to mend a weak offensive line and an inconsistent secondary. The Seahawks have had to throw more this season because of changes in their offensive line.
As for the Seattle secondary, it has received inconsistent play from veteran cornerback Marcus Trufant and safety Ken Hamlin. The Seahawks, who also have dealt with severe injury problems, have put a greater premium on their pass rush to help protect the secondary, but have gotten inconsistent results.
In Denver, the 6-2 Broncos have tried to get quarterback Jake Plummer to play more consistently. Plummer had one of his best games of the season at Pittsburgh, throwing three touchdown passes. However, it has been clear all season that coach Mike Shanahan has been resistant to give Plummer too much responsibility.
"What you're saying is true, every team has some weakness and the job you're faced with as a coach is to cover it up in some way," Dungy said.
- New England