Colts have several chinks in the armor

INDIANAPOLIS – Out here in the heartland, word has arrived (at least to most) that back East, Rex Ryan keeps talking and talking and talking.

The New York Jets’ coach claims the “rivalry” with the Indianapolis Colts is personal. He wants to beat Peyton Manning(notes) “worse than anybody in the league.” And he feels the Colts, who needed a four-game win streak to reach the playoffs, are ripe for the picking.

“Are they showing signs of being more vulnerable?” Ryan asked reporters on Tuesday. “I believe they are.”

To which the collective reaction from the Colts’ training facility has been … Who? What? Are we supposed to care?

Coach Jim Caldwell, as you prepare for Saturday night’s playoff game, do you have a reaction to the latest bluster from big Rex?

“No, sir,” Caldwell said with a shrug. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”

Peyton Manning said he wasn’t aware. Joseph Addai(notes) said he just didn’t care.

Rivalry? “I see it as a playoff game,” Robert Mathis(notes) said. “Win or go home. Call it what you want.”

The Colts’ collective impression this week has been the same; this isn’t the kind of franchise that gets sucked into wars or words. That’s especially true with a coach that they’ve beaten five of six times dating back to his days as defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. The one loss? That was December of 2009 against the Jets when perfect Indy pulled its starters. Two of the victories came in the playoffs, including last January’s AFC title game.

“It’s not about Rex Ryan, he’s not playing,” Colts running back Dominic Rhodes(notes) said. “All the theatrics and all the talk, we don’t worry about that. If we do what we do, it’s tough to handle us.”

For more than a decade now this is how the Colts have done business. It starts with Caldwell (and Tony Dungy before him). It is pounded home by Manning. Caldwell says he doesn’t squelch player personalities, but a parade of guys have come in through the years and it’s been awhile since there was a big talker.

There’s a difference now though and it gets to the heart of what Rex Ryan was saying: Is Indianapolis’ silence still rooted in confidence or is it now based on legitimate concern?

Ryan talks for a reason. He is motivating his team; setting up the “us-against-the-world-mentality” it thrives on (and will need to thrive on since their arduous Super Bowl road may require at Indy, at New England, at Pittsburgh).

He is also planting a seed of confidence in his guys with the added hope that even if no Colt takes the bait and snaps back, they may wonder and doubt, too.

More vulnerable Ryan said and really, who can argue against that?

Yes, the Colts (10-6) are in a familiar spot – record-tying ninth consecutive playoff appearance, AFC South champions, home for a playoff game. The route here wasn’t the same old speeding train, though.

The memories of a tumultuous three-game losing streak – including poor play by no less than Manning – lingers. The team’s bedrock defensive front is aging. The offense has been cracked by injuries. The running game was so down that the Colts had to sign Rhodes off the street a month ago.

It’s premature to call this the last stand of Peyton Manning’s Colts. We’re getting closer to that day, though.

The uniforms are the same, but this isn’t your older brother’s Colts.

The Jets sacked Manning twice in last year’s playoff clash.
(Al Pereira/Getty Images)

“You can’t compare a championship team to a team that really hasn’t done anything yet,” Rhodes said.

So Indy is sticking with the basics, falling back on its core values. It’s about preparation. It’s about avoiding mistakes. It’s about maximizing what they do.

That actually may no longer be enough – the Jets’ best may be better than the Colts’ best. If Indy doesn’t play well though, then they’re in major trouble. The playoffs have always been a cruel place, but whatever margin for error this team once held is significantly smaller, if it exists at all.

So let Ryan do his colorful, big media act. This is Indiana, in a training facility sponsored by the state farm bureau no less. Around here, it’s shut up and get to work – blood on the scarecrow and all.

“I’m not judged on being quotable or not quotable,” Caldwell said of his style. “I have a lot of ministers in my family. I think I could put on a pretty good sermon. There are several ways to skin a cat … and I choose to do it my way.”

In New York, this is a rivalry. In Indianapolis, it’s another January playoff push, maybe not with the most high-powered team, but still with Manning, still with Dwight Freeney(notes) and Robert Mathis, still with the know-how of what it takes to win the way they’ve always won.

“I’ve been around the block a little bit,” Caldwell said. “I’m 55 and going to be 56 in a week. I believe in boiling it down to the lowest common denominator.

“What matters is winning.”

That’s as close to a verbal response as Rex Ryan is getting.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011