It's hard to overstate Sanders' importance to the Colts

Football often is referred to as the "ultimate team game," but the Indianapolis Colts are proof how much this team game can be impacted by just a single player.

Or maybe you didn't realize this: The Colts allowed the fewest points in the NFL during the 2007 season (98 fewer than a year ago). And, of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs, they had the top-rated defense, based on yards allowed.

Yet this is a team that was wracked by injuries, that lost its best pass rusher, Dwight Freeney, at midseason, that rarely started the same lineup two weeks in a row, that started 10 different defensive linemen.

One constant was strong safety Bob Sanders.

No wonder he was voted as the league's defensive player of the year.

Tony Dungy's defense always has been built on interchangeable parts. With both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, it never depended on the stud shutdown corner, for example, but on a disciplined, zone system that was designed to limit big plays and depended on the speed of its athletes to get to the ball.

So the Colts could permit both of their starting Super Bowl cornerbacks, Nick Harper and Jason David, to depart as free agents, plug in recent draft choices Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, and be better for it. So they could survive the losses of Freeney and two other starters, linebacker Rob Morris and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, and still earn a first-round playoff bye.

Sanders vs. L.T.

And, as much as history tells us Peyton Manning and his offensive mates have been unstoppable in playoff games at home, Sunday's divisional matchup against San Diego figures to depend even more on what the Indy defense does against LaDainian Tomlinson.

Which is where Sanders comes in.

Expect him often to position himself near the line of scrimmage, the better to shadow Tomlinson, and force Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to take the ball in his hands.

That strategy did not work last week for Tennessee because Rivers, a second-year starter who will be making his first playoff appearance on the road, had a superlative second half.

Until then, Rivers hadn't been known for being able to carry the offense, and even coach Norv Turner concedes the Chargers are "at our best when we're running the football." So the question is whether the wild-card game was a coming-out party for Rivers, or an aberration.

"I believe he got a lot of people's attention," Turner said.

"He's gotten better each week," added Tomlinson. "A lot of times, we forget how young he is, only his second year starting."

In this game, Rivers may find his options limited because he is likely to be without injured tight end Antonio Gates. Gates not only was San Diego's leading receiver, but he caught eight of Rivers' 21 touchdown passes during the season.

On the plus side, San Diego expects fullback Lorenzo Neal back in the lineup for the first time in a month, and that should give the Chargers a boost in the blocking for Tomlinson's runs.

They might need it. In November, even with Neal blocking for him, Tomlinson was held to 76 yards on 21 rushes against the Colts, who limited opponents to 3.8 yards a carry during the season, sixth best in the NFL, and allowed only one of their last 10 opponents to average as much as 4 yards a rush. It was a continuation of the defense Indy suddenly displayed when the 2006 playoffs began and led to the Colts' Super Bowl run.

There is a cliché that covers that development; sometimes, clichés become clichés because they're real, like this one that says "defense wins championships." A year ago, Indianapolis' Super Bowl run began with two victories in which the powerful Colts offense managed to score just two touchdowns, total, while Manning threw five interceptions.

Indy won those two games because the defense allowed only one touchdown, total.

Who needs Manning with a defense like that?

Okay. Just kidding. But it's hard to overstate Sanders' importance.

The Sanders Factor

We should have learned all about the Sanders Factor when he returned from an injury in time for last year's playoffs, when Indy allowed just 238.5 yards a game -- nearly 100 yards a game better than during the regular season, when Sanders hardly played.

Freeney is considered one of the NFL's elite pass rushers, yet the Colts allowed, on average, a half-point a game less after losing him in November of this season than they did before he was hurt. In other words, his absence was not nearly as big a factor this year as Sanders' absence was last year.

During the 2007 season, the Colts allowed just 279.7 yards per game. They held San Diego to 177 on the road in that weird November game, a 23-21 San Diego victory in which the Chargers scored two touchdowns on kick returns and Manning threw -- this is not a typo -- six interceptions.

That performance, of course, still gnaws at Manning, ever the perfectionist, and with the likelihood he'll finally get Marvin Harrison back on the field this week, the chances of a repeat are less than nil. Then, there is Manning's playoff résumé in the dome. In the last five home playoff games, he completed 128 of 182 passes (70.3 percent) for 1,842 yards (368.4 a game) and 12 touchdowns with five interceptions (three of them in one game last year against Kansas City).

This game will be different than the November game. That time, Manning was missing not only Harrison, but rookie wideout Anthony Gonzalez, one of the three starters in the Colts' usual three-receiver alignment, tight end Dallas Clark, and left tackle Tony Ugoh. Indy had to reach so far down the depth chart that Brian Fletcher, Craphonso Thorpe and Aaron Moorehead caught 17 passes passes among them in that game; in the other 15 games, they caught 21.

Flying under the radar

There is another factor at play, too, that has nothing to do with the X's and O's but with the mental/emotional side of it. And that has everything to do with perception, the perception of the Colts.

They're the defending champions. They have won at least 12 games for a record five consecutive seasons. And yet, hardly anyone pays them any attention because of that undefeated team nearly a thousand miles to the East.

A matchup with the Patriots, of course, is in the future, if at all. But the New England-Indianapolis comparison is reminiscent of a couple of quarterbacks from a different era: the Super Bowl following the 1984 season, when Dan Marino, who had thrown a then-record 48 touchdown passes, led Miami against San Francisco.

Even though he already had a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé, Joe Montana was the "other" quarterback going into that game. He toiled in relative anonymity in the days leading to the game, but the 49ers with the better defense stuffed Marino, and Montana won another MVP award. It's a lesson that might bear repeating if the Colts and Patriots both win this weekend.

"It's usually hard to win and stay under the radar, but I feel like in some ways we have been able to do it this year, and deservedly so," Manning said. "New England going undefeated, that's created a lot of the attention. There probably has been fewer special features and maybe fewer national media in (Indianapolis) during the course of the season.

"I think if you ask most players, that's certainly fine with everybody here. It's certainly been a lot easier to focus on the task at hand each week, and not having any unnecessary outside distractions."

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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