Better than ever

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

HOUSTON – Standing barefoot in a fine gray suit in front of his locker, Peyton Manning was doing that parsed-lip, aw-shucks, shake-of-the-head thing of his.

He was all but apologizing for scoring only 30 points on the Houston Texans, enough for a solid six-point victory to make the Indianapolis Colts 3-0 but not enough to make their leader happy.

"I, I mean, I don't know," Manning said when asked about an overthrown pass.

So it is for the Colts and Peyton the perfectionist. Of all the challenges that come from winning a Super Bowl, unrealistic expectations are what seem to be clinging to the Colts.

There has been no championship hangover. No loss of hunger. No overconfidence. No chemistry issues, despite a bunch of new faces.

The Colts actually have been better this year than last, even if their margins of victory (a two-point victory at Tennessee last week; 30-24 here) aren't spinning heads like the New England Patriots'.

But last year the Colts lost at both Tennessee and Houston. By silencing a boisterous crowd here at Reliant Stadium and running right through a suddenly hyped Texans defense, they just completed a road sweep of those AFC South rivals.

"I think we will be better (than last season's team) by the end of the year," said coach Tony Dungy, who always has thrived on optimism.

Indianapolis may not be humiliating opponents the way the Patriots are, but Dungy may wind up being correct.

Late last season the Colts lost here 27-24, and everyone wondered if their defense could hold up in the playoffs. The lowly Texans (almost no relation to this year's solid club) controlled the game. Manning ran 45 plays (as opposed to 59 this Sunday), and the Colts had six meaningful possessions.

"It's not like basketball where guys can play both sides of the ball," Manning said then in this same locker room. "You can only control when you're out there."

That was taken as a rip of the defense, Manning letting his frustrations flow. While winning has a way of making everyone forget the negatives (just the way losing does the opposite), the glory of February was not the result of a year of flawless play.

Just four regular-season games later, Manning didn't sound like he wished it was basketball anymore: "I think defensively these guys are doing a great job forcing turnovers and making stops," he said.

Don't let the downcast talk fool you; the Colts are rolling. They racked up 362 total yards with no turnovers, few penalties and one sack allowed against a tough rush, and they scored 30 points, which will win virtually any game.

All of this in a contest dubbed the biggest in Texans history. "A big-time atmosphere," Manning said. "Houston was kind of waiting for us."

Manning was 20-of-29 passing for 273 yards and a touchdown, yet afterward went on and on about three red-zone trips that ended in field goals. "We've got to keep working on getting into the end zone," he lamented.

This can't be comforting for the rest of the league. Manning looks no different than before shedding his "can't win the big one" label. He appears just as hungry, just as committed, just as focused, just as fiery.

"We've always done a good job putting the last season behind us," he said. "… Nobody really talks about last year.

"I think you sit back and reflect on (winning a Super Bowl) when you are retired and old. When you are in the middle of your career, you sort of take it one week at a time, one season at a time."

Maybe the Colts don't wind up better than last season. Or maybe they do and that isn't enough.

But it won't be because of comfort or complacency.

"Our biggest challenge for me was overcoming the players that we lost," he said. "I never once thought the offseason work ethic was going to be a factor because of the kinds of guys we have. We have guys who live in Indianapolis, so they work out (here) in the offseason. (Colts GM) Bill (Polian) and Tony draft guys who are going to work hard.

"That doesn't guarantee a win, but it sends the right kind of message that we are going to keep working hard."

So there was Manning determining the mood of the franchise. He kept doling out praise for his teammates, but you could tell he wanted everyone to know that while a road win is a good win, the offense still has a long way to go.

Houston is an improved club, but it isn't New England, against whom three red-zone field goals on Nov. 4 in Indy or the seemingly inevitable playoff clash might not cut it.

"We are very critical of ourselves and analytical of ourselves come Monday in the film (session)," he said.

Manning seems to revel in this ‐ the clenched jaws, the sense of purpose, the brutally honest film session to come. He knows that having his Colts 3-0 and unsatisfied is probably for the best.

So let the Patriots keep blowing everyone out. The champions, at the very least, are going to be ready.

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