Colts back as contender, but road to Super Bowl won't be easy

Once again, the Colts force us to pay attention to them. And not the same way we did when they were 3-4 and seemingly headed nowhere.

The explosive Colts are back. The playoff Colts are back. Maybe even the Super BowlColts are back.

Bill Polian, for one, isn't surprised that the team has been able to battle its way to a 7-4 record that, at the very least, has it well positioned to grab a wild-card spot.

"They fight hard in every ballgame," the Colts' president said. "They play 60 minutes in every ballgame. As long as you've got that kind of spirit and they keep playing as hard as they (are), then we'll be okay. We're fine."

After four straight wins against the Patriots, Steelers, Texans, and Chargers -- with each game decided by six or fewer points -- the Colts have earned every bit of the ground they made up since presumably passing the AFC South torch to the Titans after last month's 10-point loss in Nashville.

Schefter's take

The question no longer is whether Indianapolis is making the playoffs. The question is how far it is going to be advancing in them, Adam Schefter writes. **More ...**

One glance at the Colts' remaining schedule, and it's easy to say that they have a legitimate chance of running the table to a 12-4 finish. In fact, a chance to win a sixth consecutive AFC South title, which seemed hopeless before the Titans suffered their first loss of the season against the Jets, could even be within reach.

Beginning Sunday at Cleveland, the Colts face four opponents residing at or near the bottom of the league. The other games are at home, against Cincinnati and Detroit, followed by a trip to Jacksonville. The Colts' final regular-season game is against the Titans, but that, too, is at home with the division title possibly on the line.

Still, there's reason to believe the Colts' path might not be quite as easy as it looks. Although they are doing a good job of rushing the passer, their injury-depleted secondary allows too many big plays. For the last four weeks, Peyton Manning and his receivers have been prolific enough to overcome the shortcomings in pass coverage. However, if the Colts do find themselves on the road to another Super Bowl, there's a good chance they'll have to travel through some bad-weather cities in January. That could pose a serious challenge to their passing game, which functions much better indoors.

The bottom line is that the Colts will again need to rely on the same level of grit that helped them climb back into the postseason picture in the first place. Polian, for one, is confident they'll have no problem finding it.

"That's the hallmark of Tony Dungy teams," Polian said. "Adversity's an opportunity for heroism, somebody once told me. Our guys have had plenty of adversity this season, and they've never lost faith. They keep on working, they keep on believing, and it's nice to see it rewarded.

"We just continue playing, week after week. Let's see where everything is the first week of December. We've come through an awfully difficult (portion of the) schedule. Hey, let's fight our way through it, keep playing week after week, and we'll see what happens.

"Nothing's been decided yet, that's for sure."

What's holding back Saints?

» You watch Drew Brees and the Saints' offense maul what had been the NFL's third-ranked pass defense, a team with arguably the best secondary in the league, and you wonder why New Orleans is in last place in the NFC South. The rest of the division is good, but not overwhelmingly better.

Then you take a look at the Saints' defense and you stop wondering why this club is a bottom-dweller.

Sure, the Saints have been able to pile up points all season, although not to the level of the franchise-record-tying 51 they hung on the Packers. But their inability to keep opposing offenses in check makes the off-the-charts production from Brees' arm just seem like a terrible waste.

Brees has put himself back to the top of MVP consideration. The question is will he collect the honor on his way to the postseason? I still have my doubts.

Defense not Packers' only problem

» Inexcusable.

That's all I could keep thinking as I watched the Packers' defense give up so many yards and so many points. I know Brees and the Saints are explosive, but that shouldn't happen against Green Bay's defense. Not in a game that meant so much to both teams.

Give the Saints credit for playing with greater urgency, but the Packers have to be ashamed for such an embarrassing performance.

Although most of the blame for the loss goes to Green Bay's defense, Aaron Rodgers is open to some criticism as well. In a game that had quickly established itself as a shootout, Rodgers needed to be at his very best if he had any hope of going throw for throw with Brees. He wasn't. His interceptions on back-to-back series at the beginning of the second half made an already daunting task for the Packers' defense downright impossible.

Rodgers, who would throw a third interception in the fourth quarter, did not make the best decisions with the ball, all of which falls under the heading of a learning process for a quarterback in his first season as a starter. He did end up with a pair of touchdown passes, but the second came with the game already out of reach. Rodgers should have been able to find much more success against a defense that routinely allows game-breaking plays.

Reid, Crennel raise questions with QB handling

Andy Reid and Romeo Crennel made curious decisions with quarterback changes during their teams' respective losses to Baltimore and Houston Sunday:

» Let me see if I have this straight: Reid thought that it was a good idea to bench Donovan McNabb after he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half with the Eagles trailing the Ravens, 10-7. He thought it was a good idea to replace McNabb with Kevin Kolb, who had minimal preparation for the game and proceeded to demonstrate as much by throwing two more interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) as the close game became a blowout loss.

And now Reid thinks it's a good idea to start McNabb against Arizona on Thanksgiving night?

I'm struggling to find the logic. I have no problem with the benching of McNabb, but only if, as I originally assumed, it was a permanent move. McNabb is forever linked as Reid's franchise quarterback. Reid never pulled the plug on him until Sunday. Once he did, it was fair to assume the McNabb era was over and the Kolb era had begun.

It's hard to imagine McNabb, who has thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles in his last two games, rebounding mentally from the benching and taking a business-as-usual-approach to the Cardinals game. It's harder to accept Reid's explanation that he has "confidence" McNabb will work through his slump.

Something tells me the prime-time crowd at Lincoln Financial Field won't share that sentiment unless McNabb plays one of the best games of his career. Reid could always go back to Kolb again, but getting an inexperienced quarterback ready in a short week of preparation seems like another prelude to disaster.

Quinn to get second opinion

Browns quarterback Brady Quinn will have his injured right index finger examined by noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. Quinn was benched in the Browns' latest loss. **More ...**

» Now that it has been revealed that the fractured index finger on Brady Quinn's right (throwing) hand might be worse than first believed, Crennel's decision to yank him after he threw two interceptions against the Texans doesn't seem all that puzzling.

What is puzzling, however, is the fact Crennel, while mentioning the injury as being part of his thought process, felt the need to emphasize the fact he was trying to give his offense a "spark" with a quarterback change. Conventional wisdom suggests that the "spark" move was made two games earlier when the coach gave Quinn the first start of his NFL career against Denver. Quinn played well in a loss that was mainly the result of poor defensive play, and was solid in the Browns' Week 11 triumph at Buffalo.

Removing Quinn from only his third start made little sense given that the Browns' season is headed nowhere and the quarterback's development should be the team's greatest priority through the balance of the schedule. But the injury, which apparently is bad enough for Quinn to seek a second opinion from renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, changes everything. Crennel told reporters the next day that Quinn has a damaged tendon in the finger besides the fracture at the tip, and it "makes it tough for him to spin (the ball) the way he wants to spin it."

Crennel, who is on one of the NFL's hottest coaching seats, could have saved himself a whole lot of grief by simply saying that Quinn's finger was the primary reason he pulled him from the game.

Big bumps in Dolphins' playoff road

By no means am I ready to write off the Dolphins' chances of turning the dramatic improvement they've already made over last season into a playoff appearance.

However, Sunday's 48-28 loss to the Patriots could very well prove more damaging than what it did to Miami's divisional record. It also resulted in a season-ending knee injury to third-year wide receiver Greg Camarillo.

Camarillo wasn't simply the Dolphins' leading receiver with 55 receptions for 613 yards and two touchdowns, including one against New England on Sunday. He was the embodiment of the team-first, hard-working mentality that rookie coach Tony Sparano had instilled in the entire roster. Camarillo, a walk-on at Stanford whom the Dolphins claimed off waivers, could always be counted on to give optimum effort. His play was both productive and contagious to those around him.

Now that he is out of the lineup, the Dolphins are going to have a hard time picking up the slack in their passing game. Rookie Davone Bess is a possibility, especially after catching five passes for 87 yards Sunday while making his first NFL start in a three-receiver set. Brandon London and Ernest Wilford also are in the mix. But none of the three is likely to provide what Camarillo did with his performance and his presence.

Look for the Dolphins to also continue making greater use of running back Ricky Williams as a receiver. He showed the superb athleticism that still thrives in his 31-year-old body by stretching to make a touchdown catch in the back of the end zone against the Pats.

Another disturbing aspect of the Dolphins' loss was the behavior of linebacker Joey Porter. Although Porter is Miami's best defensive player, that doesn't allow him to refuse to come off the field, as was the case late in the New England game. Porter had allowed his emotions to get the better of him and drew two personal fouls, one after Sparano had sent reserve Charlie Anderson in the game to replace Porter only to have Porter wave Anderson back to the sideline. That happened a second time as well.

Porter spent far too much time before the game publicly calling out the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, for last year's illegal-videotaping scandal. He is well known for trash talking, but his comments served no purpose other than to perhaps give the Pats a little more juice in trying to avenge their early season loss to Miami. The same was true with the additional spillover of emotions when Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder and Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light got into a fight after Stephen Gostkowski's 30-yard field goal gave the Pats a 41-28 lead.

Both players were ejected, but it is the Dolphins' overall lack of poise, along with their first major injury of the season, that has presented Sparano with his greatest challenge as a head coach.

"This is going to be a pivotal point in our season here, no doubt about it," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said after Sunday's game. "Of course, you want to go home a winner, but things are completely different. Now, as a team, you're at a crossroad. What's going to happen now? How are you going to respond after a loss like this (and) after everything transpired on the field (Sunday)? For us, as veterans in this locker room, leadership is very important right now."

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