JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The shadow of the New England Patriots has left the Indianapolis Colts with so many backhanded nicknames. The Colts hear the outside world call them "Team 1-B" or refer to them as the Patriots' jayvee team. Indy's highlights are always in the second breath of broadcasts, after the nation has devoured its weekly fill of Randy Moss and Tom Brady and Patriots, blah, blah, blah.
In the face of all of it, the Colts just keep winning, spreading a unified whisper to the rest of the universe: After Monday night's 29-7 road domination of the Jacksonville Jaguars, there are actually two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL this season.
"It's perfect," Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said of the never-ending shadow that New England has cast this season. "It's less talk that we have to hear. In the past, we always hear about the opportunity for the Colts to go 16-0 and everybody is always in our locker room."
But the Patriots and Colts are hurdling toward each other and it is fast shaping up as the NFL's version of the irresistible force versus the immovable object. And Monday night served as the counterpunch in hype to New England's Sunday massacre of the Miami Dolphins. While the Patriots gave the viewing public quantity (six touchdown passes by quarterback Tom Brady), the Colts delivered the quality. Not only did they manhandle a team that had traditionally given them problems, Indianapolis' defense manhandled an opponent that has been historically billed as being far more physical.
"That's been the myth the last couple of years, that we're the Colts – the finesse team," Indy linebacker Gary Brackett said. "I guess it works. We've been successful the last couple of years. Obviously we're an undersized defense, but we fly around the football. … It's not about perception. It's about reality."
Six games into their season, there are many realities that have taken shape about these Colts. They've swept the road games in their division and struck a solid balance on offense and defense. They haven't missed left tackle Tarik Glenn nearly as much as anticipated, showing that they can establish the run against the best in the league. Jacksonville went into Monday night with the 10th best rush defense (96.4 yards allowed per game) in the league. However, Indianapolis rolled up 141 yards with a running attack balanced between Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith.
More importantly, Indianapolis locked down the Jacksonville running game in their first meeting after allowing an embarrassing 375 yards to the Jaguars in a road loss last season. The Jaguars managed only 117 this time around, partially thanks to a Colts defense that has played faster and more physical this season. In many ways, Indianapolis' defense is the part of the team that is light years ahead of where it was one year ago.
"We're building right now," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "Last year at this point, we still didn't know who we were. Now we know that we can do the job."
With starting cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden in the lineup, along with emerging linebacker Freddy Keiaho and the consistent health of safety Bob Sanders, the Colts have been a far tougher run defense than in years past. And it may be Sanders who has made the most difference.
After playing in only four regular season games last season, he's ascended to a position as one of the game's elite defenders – perhaps the best in the NFL. That argument only strengthened Monday night, when he deflected two passes and intercepted another, and played his typical ferocious game at the line of scrimmage.
"We’re a little bit more physical," Sanders said. "We’re a lot faster. We're just better overall. We're a little bit more comfortable with each other."
And the label of the Colts defense being finesse? Sanders shrugged.
"All the talk and rah-rah, who really cares?" he said.
Ultimately, Sanders may prove the X-factor against the Patriots. In a game destined to be defined by elite playmakers, Sanders will face his biggest coverage test of the season in two weeks against New England.
Not that anyone in the Indianapolis locker room was interested in discussing it Monday night. After the win, Colts head coach Tony Dungy pulled his team together to remind them that they had been in this position before – coming off a chest-puffing Monday night win and having grand visions.
"We're not going to fall into that trap," Dungy said. "I reminded the team that four years ago we won a big Monday night game on the road (against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), had to come back to play the Carolina Panthers on six days rest, and we didn't win. So we’ll focus on that."
Not that it will be easy, with the Patriots rolling toward them and talk of rivalries and records and destiny hanging in the balance. And of course, plenty of time to contemplate why the outside world sees the Patriots' 7-0 start as so much more impressive than the Colts' 6-0 run.
"It's OK," Freeney said. "They get the attention and we get the attention. But it doesn't really matter. Back door, front door, however we do it, as long as we get wins we're fine."