NFL Preview: Indianapolis at Denver

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For the second straight season, the Indianapolis Colts are rolling through their schedule on the strength of their high-powered offense. That unit will get its toughest test of the season Sunday when the Colts take on the Denver Broncos and their league-best defense at Invesco Field.

Indianapolis (6-0) won its first 13 games last season before dropping two of its final three regular season contests.

Peyton Manning has his team overwhelming opposing defenses again this season, as the Colts have scored 171 points, second-most in the AFC.

Manning and the Colts, though, have rarely succeeded in the situation they will face Sunday. Manning has not thrown a touchdown pass in two games at Denver, and has thrown one interception and fumbled twice - losing one. He only threw two passes against the Broncos at Invesco on Jan. 2, 2005, as the Colts rested their starters in preparation for the playoffs.

The Colts have struggled in Denver longer than Manning has been their quarterback, going 1-6 there, including 1-3 since moving to Indianapolis from Baltimore. The Colts' only win in Denver came Nov. 24, 2002, a 23-20 victory.

Indianapolis, though, has won four of the last six in the series, including two straight playoff games at the RCA Dome, and coach Tony Dungy doesn't believe the venue has anything to do with why the Colts have had a tough time in road games against the Broncos.

``We never feel like we're going to win (at the RCA Dome) because it's noisy, so we don't feel like they're going to win because of the altitude or the grass or whatever,'' said Dungy, whose team plays at 5-1 New England next week. ``You just have to play better than them.''

The Colts certainly did that against last week's opponent, as Manning threw four touchdown passes in a 36-22 win over Washington. Duplicating that offensive performance Sunday, however, could be very difficult against a Denver defense that has allowed 44 points this season, by far the fewest in the NFL.

The Broncos' 96-27 home record since 1991 is the best in the league.

Denver's defense has had to be good to compensate for the team's anemic offense. The first-place Broncos are averaging 13.2 points per game, second-to-last in the NFL.

Jake Plummer's recent woes have led to speculation that he might soon be replaced by first-round draft pick Jay Cutler, but Plummer will remain the starter - at least for another week. Plummer has a passer rating of 60.4, which ranks 32nd in the league. He's thrown seven interceptions - the same number he had all last season - and just four touchdown passes.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan had a chance to quiet the escalating Plummer-Cutler debate Monday, but kept his options open.

``It's not my job to share with you if I want to make a change at any position,'' Shanahan said. ``When we do make a decision, we'll make the decision in the best interest of our organization. I will tell you this - Jake Plummer will be our quarterback against Indy.''

Losing left tackle Matt Lepsis for the season certainly won't help Plummer's cause. Lepsis tore a ligament in his right knee during the first half of a 17-7 win over Cleveland on Sunday.

``Anytime you lose one of your top players for the season, it's always a pretty good punch,'' Shanahan said. ``It's a knockout punch almost.''

The Broncos inserted Erik Pears in Lepsis' place, but Shanahan said that might not be a permanent move. He said the team could switch right guard Cooper Carlisle to left tackle and put rookie Chris Kuper into Carlisle's position.

Denver's offensive numbers could get a boost against an Indianapolis defense that has struggled, giving up 20.3 points per game, but Dungy feels his group is improving.

Two weeks after the coach used the term ``soft'' to describe the team's run defense, he sounded optimistic after limiting Washington to 114 yards rushing. Indianapolis improved its defensive ranking from a league-worst 32nd to 31st, although its 5.2 yards-per-carry average remains the worst in the NFL.

Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who the Colts acquired in an Oct. 17 trade with Tampa Bay, has contributed to the improvement by helping to stabilize the line.

In the Jan. 2, 2005 meeting, the last between the teams, Plummer threw two touchdown passes as the Broncos clinched a playoff berth with a 33-14 win.

Manning needs 26 yards to move by former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly for 13th on the career list for passing yards.

By: Michael Cash - - Email Us

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