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Dungy's influence still evident, but Manning keeps Colts rolling

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Dungy watched it all unfold like a proud papa.

This was how he and team president Bill Polian had built the Indianapolis Colts to perform -- with no one flinching when things go wrong.

You lose Dallas Clark, one of the most dynamic tight ends in the game, to a season-ending wrist injury ... and you still find a way to keep the offense humming.

Now that Dungy has retired to NBC's "Football Night in America" studio, he doesn't fret if it fails to work out that way. But on Monday night, when he was added to the Colts' Ring of Honor, it did. Dungy saw his former team overcome Clark's absence with a 30-17 victory over the Houston Texans.

He saw Clark's replacement, Jacob Tamme, catch six passes for 64 yards and his first career touchdown in his second career start.

"Bill Polian said, 'Hey, this is what this guy can do: He can catch the football, he can get open against inside coverage, there's a role for him on the team,'" Dungy said. "He didn't get that opportunity. He was playing behind Dallas, but now, when your time comes, you're ready to step up. And that's what these guys do."

Added Colts offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen, who had been an assistant on Dungy's staffs with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in Indianapolis, "People don't panic. There's a bunch of character. Tony started it with, 'Hey, the next guy jumps up, and you play.' It's just what you do. It's a good culture."

The key to that culture's success is Peyton Manning. Clark has been one of the most reliable and versatile targets that Manning has had in his 13 seasons as the Colts' quarterback.

After Clark landed on injured reserve, it was widely assumed that an offense that hadn't quite been in synch through most of a 4-2 start would suffer significant damage. There had to be a certain number of pass plays that couldn't be run effectively without Clark on the field. And not merely those designed to go to him, but to other receivers who usually benefitted from Clark's ability to draw coverage away from them while lining up as a tight end or out wide.

To be certain, there were hiccups in the Colts' offense Monday night. But not so many that Manning couldn't find ways to keep it rolling. He also made sure to maintain the prominence of the tight end position by getting the ball into the hands of Tamme, who had nine passes thrown his way. That was only two fewer than leading receiver Pierre Garcon, who had seven catches for 78 yards, and three fewer than Reggie Wayne, who caught Manning's other scoring throw.

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"I think you always want to see how a guy responds, right?" Manning said. "Certainly, it's a high-pressure situation ... subbing in for a guy that just defines the word versatility in Dallas Clark. It was nice to see a guy that had a calm, cool look to him the entire night. That is encouraging to see."

But the most important aspect to the Colts' success, as always, was that the coolest player on the field was Manning.

Sure, he had moments when he had to direct and re-direct his supporting cast. Yet, he never allowed himself, or the rest of the offense, to unravel.

"I really believe Peyton does his best work when you kind of deal him a bad hand," Christensen said. "A lot of quarterbacks play good hands really well, but you deal Peyton a bad hand and he just looks at the thing, stares at it, and just wills it into being a good hand. That's really something special about him."

They've got answers

» The Oakland Raiders, because Jason Campbell has performed well the past two weeks in place of injured Bruce Gradkowski. Coach Tom Cable insists that Gradkowski is still his starter. However, despite Campbell's clunker against San Francisco a few weeks back, Cable can feel good about his quarterbacking depth as the Raiders make what continues to shape up as a realistic run at a division title.

» The Detroit Lions, because Matthew Stafford quickly overcame any rust or other lingering effects from being sidelined with a shoulder injury to throw four touchdown passes against the Washington Redskins. In such a competitively flat year, the Lions are a team to watch through the second half of the season.

» The St. Louis Rams, because Sam Bradford has gone three games without throwing an interception. Although the rookie quarterback isn't putting up spectacular numbers, his steady and efficient play are just the right complement for a team that relies on its running game and defense for the surprising success it has had so far.

They've got questions

» The Seattle Seahawks, because they converted only one of 16 third-down opportunities and had nine punts against the Raiders. You can chalk it up to a team that always struggles on the road, but that's too convenient an excuse. The Seahawks are simply too inconsistent to be taken seriously.

» The Miami Dolphins, because Dan Carpenter has kicked 10 field goals in the last two games. It is one thing to have an ultra-reliable placekicker, but where's the rest of that offense that was supposed to have gotten such a big boost with the addition of Brandon Marshall?

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because even though they are sitting atop the AFC West, their offense is too one-dimensional. It is great they can lean so heavily on the NFL's best running game, but at some point they must be able to trust quarterback Matt Cassel to make more plays. Unless, of course, they don't think they can.

Observation points

» I'm replacing the Pittsburgh Steelers as the top team in my team rankings with the New England Patriots.

After that dreadful performance at New Orleans and less-than-overwhelming effort at Miami, the Steelers' demotion shouldn't be all that surprising. But a question might be raised about the Patriots, especially with all of the heat their defense has been under since the start of the season.

Here's one less question about that defense: Its ability to contain the run. The Patriots are giving up just 101.6 yards on the ground per game.

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» If Redskins coach Mike Shanahan thought that his late switch of quarterbacks against the Detroit Lions might give his offense a lift, then fine. That is exactly what he should do as their coach, even if the starter is Donovan McNabb and the replacement is the far less accomplished Rex Grossman.

However, for Shanahan to say the reason for the change was based on Grossman's superiority in handling the two-minute drill seems ridiculous. It came off as an obvious -- and unsuccessful -- attempt to soften the blow of yanking the quarterback Shanahan acquired in that surprise Easter trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. No one buys that Grossman is a better two-minute quarterback than McNabb. And if Shanahan truly doesn't trust McNabb in that situation, he shouldn't trust him as his starter, period.

» As difficult as officiating seems to have become, where officials often struggle to figure out a call even after looking at it on replay, I'm beginning to think that coaches no longer should be put in a position to make challenges.

With everything else coaches have to do during a game, the additional responsibility of trying to figure out something that is proving increasingly difficult to those closer to the action and presumably more focused on what call to make seems like an unnecessary overload. Let's just put all replay challenges in the hands of those dedicated to determining what should and shouldn't be reviewed for the final 2 minutes of the half or the fourth quarter.

» First, kudos to the Green Bay Packers' defense for coming up big on the road against the New York Jets. Having Clay Matthews healthy again gives that unit the same ferocious pass rush it had through the first quarter of the season.

Second, the Jets, while stymied by a strong defensive effort, can't be comfortable with their offense. The struggles of quarterback Mark Sanchez raise familiar questions about whether he has what it takes to allow the team to consistently compete at a high enough level to fulfill Rex Ryan's Super Bowl prediction.

» Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh already is a lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but the fact is he is playing better than any offensive rookie as well. For that matter, few veteran players are dominating the way he does on a consistent basis.

Four intriguing matchups for Week 9

Miami at Baltimore: No team should be happier to be taking to the road for the second striaght week than the Dolphins, who must add to their AFC win total to enhance their status as a playoff contender. All four of their victories have come away from Sun Life Stadium, where they've suffered all three of their losses. The Dolphins' defense serves the team particularly well on the road, and could present problems for Joe Flacco and an offense that hasn't found a consistent rhythm. Baltimore's defense has had some extra time to figure out how to make amends for its poor Week 7 showing against Buffalo.

Tampa Bay at Atlanta: The fact that first place in the NFC South is on the line makes this game interesting. The fact that the Buccaneers are vying for that status raises the interest level another notch. Since that blowout loss to New Orleans in Week 6, the Buccaneers have won back-to-back games, which helps to lend some creditability to Raheem Morris' declaration that they have the best team in the NFC. Quarterback Josh Freeman continues to be a dynamic presence, especially when it comes to rallying the team in the fourth quarter. The Falcons have had a week to rest and study ways to exploit the Bucs' soft run defense with one of the better rushing offenses in the NFL. But Atlanta's solid run defense could be challenged by hard-running rookie LeGarrette Blount.

Kansas City at Oakland: It seems like old times, with these teams competing for divisional supremacy. The Chiefs were hardly impressive in needing every bit of overtime to dispose of the winless Bills. Their dominant running game has carried them a long way, but at some point they need to get more big plays out of their passing game. And that point could very well come in Week 9. The Raiders have won their last two games by a combined, 92-17, and have two solid starting quarterbacks in Campbell and Gradkowski.

N.Y. Giants at Seattle: This game looked a little more interesting before the Seahawks were pummeled at Oakland. The running game that Marshawn Lynch had seemed to improve disappeared against the Raiders, and Matt Hasselbeck paid dearly with eight sacks. Meanwhile, the Giants entered the bye looking like the best of the NFC and, after what happened with some of the so-called elite clubs in Week 8, they might very well have moved to the upper tier of the whole league. Credit coach Tom Coughlin with getting Brandon Jacobs to do less talking and more producing on an offense that also has Hakeem Nicks as a constant game-breaking threat.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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