Led by Manning and their defense, Colts make statement

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Super Bowl champions still have it.

They still have the NFL's best quarterback. They still have the league's most dangerous group of receivers. They still have a highly effective running game, even if it has only one primary back.

And, yes, they can still play good defense, just as they began doing during the 2006 postseason.

The Colts' 41-10 season-opening victory over the New Orleans Saints made a statement to the rest of the NFL. It went something like this: "We're good enough to win two in a row!"

Peyton Manning did most of the talking with his passing arm. After settling down from an erratic start, he threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns, two to Reggie Wayne and one to Marvin Harrison.

Second-year running back Joseph Addai also spoke pretty loudly with his feet, rushing for 118 yards and a score. He quickly made the Colts forget that Dominic Rhodes, now an Oakland Raider, shared their rushing load and did plenty to help them beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

But the surprise of the night was the Colts' defense, which despite losing four starters to free agency and injury, held the NFL's top-ranked offense and passing attack last year to 293 total yards (to the Colts' 452), and a field goal.

Drew Brees, who enjoyed a career season after joining the Saints last year, was held to a mere 192 passing yards. He also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned by Matt Giordano for an 83-yard touchdown, and lost a fumble.

New Orleans running backs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister were held to a combined 76 rushing yards.

In 2006, the Colts looked like two different teams -- the one that couldn't stop the run during the regular season and the one that played smothering defense in the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

Against the Saints, they looked like a complete team. They looked like a dominant team. They looked every bit like what many of us assumed they were: one of the four best teams in the league.

But maybe they're even better than that. Maybe they should be given the edge over the New England Patriots, the presumptive favorite to win Super Bowl XLII. Maybe there is a gap between the Colts and the San Diego Chargers as well. Does the Baltimore Ravens' defense have anything on the Colts' defense? It sure didn't look that way against the Saints.

"I thought it was going to be tough to hold these guys down," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Watching them on tape last year, what they had done in the preseason, they have a special offense with a lot of weapons. I didn't envision holding them to three points."

Who could have predicted that?

This was a unit that said good-bye to both starting cornerbacks, one of whom was Jason David, who started for the Saints ... and was torched all night by Manning, who beat him for his first and third touchdown passes. David did have one triumphant moment, when he stripped the ball from Wayne and returned it for the Saints' lone touchdown. Otherwise, his Saints debut was a disaster.

The Colts also lost a standout linebacker (Cato June, who bolted for Tampa Bay in free agency) and their best defensive tackle (Anthony McFarland, who suffered a season-ending knee injury). Did it matter? Ask June's replacement, Freddy Keiaho, whose interception of Brees late in the third quarter set up a field goal to give the Colts a commanding 27-10 lead early in the fourth. Ask any of the Colt defenders, whose quickness and aggressiveness was simply too much for the Saints to handle.

Better yet, ask the Saints, whose offense seemed bewildered and overmatched in every respect.

"We had some miscues," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "But credit Indianapolis. They did a good job flying around and pursuing the football really well."

"Our defense is kind of exciting to watch," Dungy said. "We've got a lot of guys with speed that run around and play hard."

Manning enjoyed watching his defensive teammates as well. He especially liked the way they used all of the concern and question marks they generated during the offseason into motivation.

"I think the defense felt really challenged," Manning said. "There's no question that is all everybody has talked about all offseason. The old cliché' is true -- when you lose some great players, everybody else has to step up. We had a lot of young guys that stepped up and played good tonight."

Now the talk will shift to a different area -- the very strong possibility that the Colts will get off to a strong start for a third consecutive season. In 2005, they went 13-0 before suffering a loss. Last year, they won their first nine games.

Considering that the Colts' next six opponents didn't qualify for the playoffs in '06, a similar run seems possible this year. For now at least, it looks as if the first trouble spot on the schedule doesn't come until Nov. 4, when they have their AFC Championship Game rematch against the Patriots.

Of course, the Colts will have none of that talk.

As impressed as Manning was with his team's defense, he wasn't about to assume that it would routinely keep opponents out of the end zone.

"This is just one game now," he said. "It takes 16 games. It sure was a good start, but that's all it is -- a start."

Still, it was a good start. A very good start.

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