|Colts ready for new playoff look as injured players expected to return|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 03 January 2008 13:49|
They lost Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison. They lost former sacks champion Dwight Freeney. They played the last six games without right tackle Ryan Diem, the last four without defensive tackle Raheem Brock, and the last three without defensive end Robert Mathis and safety Antoine Bethea. Yet they continued to win.
Now, with a week off before their divisional-round playoff game against an undetermined opponent, the Colts have finally added a new word to their vocabulary.
``It's been a long time since we've used the word healthy around here,'' cornerback Marlin Jackson said. ``But we've been able to persevere, and it's good to be getting healthy again.''
The Colts (13-3) have done more than merely survive without some of their best players.
They won the division title by two games and matched the best record of any team outside of New England. They were tied with playoff-bound Tennessee in the second half despite pulling most of their offensive starters after one quarter and playing the entire second half without their defensive starters.
The depleted Colts even led unbeaten New England 20-10 with 10 minutes to go on Nov. 4 despite having four starters - Harrison, left tackle Tony Ugoh and linebackers Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho - sit out.
And now they're nearly back at full strength.
Early indications are that all five starters who were inactive last week against Tennessee should play next week. That includes Harrison, who injured his left knee against Denver on Sept. 30 and has missed all but one game since.
He practiced Wednesday and worked on his own during Thursday's light workout. Harrison declined to speak with reporters in the locker room Thursday and coach Tony Dungy believes the eight-time Pro Bowler will be in uniform for the playoffs.
``He did not practice today, but he was running and conditioning,'' Dungy said Thursday. ``Everything seems to be on track, and I think he'll be ready to go (next) Wednesday.''
Losing Harrison, Peyton Manning's favorite target, forced Manning to get comfortable with rookie Anthony Gonzalez. But the rash of injuries was devastating in other areas.
Manning had to adjust a continually changing offensive line that included moving right guard Jake Scott into Diem's spot at tackle during one stretch. Twice, the Colts have dressed 43 players for games, two fewer than the NFL's limit.
But simply getting players back won't necessarily make Indy better.
Manning and Harrison must find their timing again to make things work smoothly, and the offensive line has to continue communicating well when Diem returns.
How long will that take?
``I think it depends on who it is,'' tight end Dallas Clark said. ``If it's Marvin, probably not long. He's been here forever. They may need to get some of the timing down, but other than that...''
Indy should be good to go.
Winning in spite of the injuries also has given the Colts a boost of confidence heading into the postseason.
After losing three projected starters to season-ending injuries - defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (knee), linebacker Rob Morris (knee) and Freeney (foot) - the Colts found capable replacements with some unfamiliar names, notably undrafted rookie Ed Johnson, Hagler and veteran defensive end Josh Thomas.
All have been standouts.
``We're excited because these guys have stepped up and played well,'' Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. ``You're not as concerned about one player or a specific player going down because we know they can all play.''
Manning, of course, has been the constant. He's started all 173 games, counting the playoffs, since coming into the league as the top overall pick in 1998.
The perception is that getting the starters back will make the Colts stronger, maybe even strong enough to repeat as champions. Many in Indianapolis continue to believe the Colts would have beaten New England in the first game if they had been healthy.
But it doesn't matter now.
The bye week has given the Colts a chance to heal, focus, and work the missing parts back into the lineup. They're about to find out if a healthy Colts team will be enough to defend the Super Bowl title.
``I think it was good to get this week of practice in and the following week,'' Saturday said. ``It gives us a chance to get everybody on the same page, and that's really what we need going into the playoffs.''