If the Colts Were a Song:
Jim Jones - "Only One Way Up"
Who Are the Colts?:
It must be strange days for Peyton Manning. Not so long ago, there was no doubt he’d fall short of ultimate success; now it seems inevitable that he’ll have everything he’s ever wanted. Statistical achievement, marketable fame, and now the chance at victory, repeated, sustained victory. Strange days for those of us who watch him, too. We’d all gotten used to the post 2006 Manning, the one who had tasted victory and was all smiles, finally looking like he’d been satisfied. Silly us and sillier him for thinking that the angry, insecure monster inside truly great competitors goes away when it’s been fed. Any pretense that this season was any less desperate than his playoff runs before the ring went away when we saw his face as 14-0 became 14-1 as he sat on the sidelines. Anger, hot, burning indignation at the sting of defeat, particularly defeat that he couldn’t control, told us everything we need to know about the Colts this season. As much as this year has looked like destiny finally taking shape for the Colts, and for their leader, this team has fought every bit as hard for their chance at the title as their remaining opponents. They did it because as much as their opponents want their first taste of victory, these Colts don’t want to let it go. You think it’s hard being the barbarians at the gates? Try being the emperor, when everybody wants what’s yours almost as badly as you want to keep it. That Manning and his two or three peers in talent on this team have kept control of their division, and really their conference for this long is a feat that must have required equal parts talent and anxious, frantic, clinging tension.
It almost makes you feel sorry for a team that never lost when its starters took the field. Almost. Make no mistake, though, the Colts are the favorite to win this thing. They have been since the playoffs started. I’d imagine they resent you for ever thinking the Ravens had a chance, and are even more pissed off that you think the Jets are going to make them worry for a second this Sunday. Much of that dominant attitude traces back to Manning. Enough has been written on just how good he is, but if there was ever any doubt before, he’s clearly the best quarterback to play the game. Not the most successful, by any means, but if you don’t believe there’s a difference, then you’re reading the wrong blog. This year, with a team that would otherwise be mediocre, Manning threw the team on his back and made them not just winners, but elite. All of this is not to say that he hasn’t had help. Dallas Clark never gets his due when people refer to him as a “safety valve”. He’s every bit the weapon that Antonio Gates is, perhaps even more of a weapon thanks to his ability to work from various spots in the formation and beat defenses underneath or over the top. He has the same sixth sense for Manning’s preferences that made Marvin Harrison the best receiver in the league for so many years. On the other hand, what Reggie Wayne lacks in consistency, he makes up for in destructive potential. Those rare misfires between him and Manning? More often than not, it’s because Wayne is a step further ahead of the coverage than Manning expected (GASP). You don’t become a top five receiver and the one player to put the scare into Revis Island without being hyper talented and devastatingly precise in execution (Wayne will carry Marvin Harrison’s legacy as an incredible receiver through the destruction of Harrison’s character in the courts and the media). Oh, and Pierre Garcon (I can’t find the squiggle under the C in word, but you know it’s there) is scarily fast, and Austin Collie is Michael Crabtree with a more reasonable price tag. The end result is a pass attack that is second best in the league and able to attack quickly on all levels.
This is a very good thing for the Colts, because for a team that everyone expects to win, there’s not a whole lot of reliable components in this machine. The run game, for starters, needs to find a better word than “abysmal”. Last in the league, it’s a credit to Manning and his receivers that this team doesn’t turn the ball over a whole lot more. Meanwhile, this defense, though breathtakingly fast (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, on any other team, are perennial Pro Bowlers), is surprisingly soft in the middle (24th against the rush) and vulnerable to getting picked apart through the air (14th against the pass). All of this makes for an interesting matchup against the Jets, particularly because as one-dimensional as the Jets are accused of being, this Colts squad is equally one dimensional. When the pass attack works, the Tampa 2 defense effectively limits opponents’ points, and the Colts win. If it doesn’t…well, we haven’t had to figure that out yet this season.
Do you understand how hard that has to have been? This team has had these same flaws since last season, and they still managed to run off a ridiculous streak of regular season wins. Hell, they had to DECIDE to lose. They have the kinds of flaws that make their peers ordinary, and yet there is no doubt that the Colts are extraordinary, and have been extraordinary, and, barring and major changes, will remain extraordinary. So it makes sense that Manning, the undeniable leader of the gang, has seemed tense. Because this team will go as far as he and his fellow two or three rare talents can take them, and he knows it, the same way he’s known it since he arrived in Indianapolis. It’s wearing on him, which could be a shame, because it’s rare in any sport for a player to achieve this level of success year after year on the strength of his own will to make his team great. But for as long as it lasts, this team will remain special. Maybe that’s what we’ll remember about this team when their run inevitably ends. In a league built on the stars aligning for an entire team in order to achieve victory, two or three special players on this team have elevated an entire organization to their level, and have imposed their will on the rest of the league. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the league’s elite, where systems and coaches take, and frequently deserve, the credit. The fact that those players were willing and able to take that responsibility on themselves, to decide they could and would change the course of the league on their own, makes this favorite as compelling as any underdog, and probably more significant.