Memories of 2006 resurface as Colts prepare for playoff run

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's the final week of the regular season, and the Colts have suddenly become a team on the run.

A three-man running attack has finally given quarterback Peyton Manning the kind of offensive balance he needs to excel, and the Colts' defense has, well, finally figured out how to stop opposing ball carriers.

The combination has put the Colts in position to make the playoffs again and possibly even defend their AFC title.

"I think we've developed a sense of attitude," linebacker Clint Session said Wednesday. "When you're dealing with a lot of key players going down, it's hard to get that confidence and attitude, and that's really what we've developed over the last few weeks is that attitude. We've taken it and run with it."

Against three of the NFL's top 10 runners -- Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden -- Indianapolis (9-6) has yielded 268 rushing yards, just 89.3 per game. In the first 12 games, the Colts gave up 142.8 yards on the ground, easily the team's biggest weakness.

If the Colts come up with one more good performance in Sunday's rematch with Johnson, they will clinch their seventh AFC South title in the last eight years, receive a first-round home game and earn an NFL-record-tying ninth consecutive playoff appearance. The Dallas Cowboys went every season from 1975 to 1983.

It's not the first time something like this has happened in Indianapolis.

"It does feel like 2006, just a little bit," Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney said, referring to the year everybody discounted the Colts as Super Bowl contenders because of a suspect run defense. "But that's how it's always been the case. If you're going to critique a team, you've got to find the biggest weakness."

For the Colts' undersized defense, that usually has been holding up against the run. But over the last three weeks, Indianapolis has made giant strides.

"We're tackling better," three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis said. "And that helps a whole lot."

So does continuity after a season spent scrambling to plug holes because of injuries.

Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders went down with a season-ending torn biceps muscle in the first quarter of the opener. His replacement, Melvin Bullitt, was lost for the season three weeks later. Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the defensive captain, missed four of the next six games with groin and toe injuries. Session hasn't played since Nov. 1 because of a dislocated right elbow. Three weeks ago, cornerback Jerraud Powers went down with a season-ending broken arm. And last week, Indianapolis' top run stuffer, defensive tackle Daniel Muir, sat out with a chest injury.

In all, 11 of the 17 Colts' players on injured reserve are from the defensive side.

Yet somehow, the team seems to have found a rotation that works.

"We've done a better job of gap control," coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think we've been better tacklers the last couple of weeks, so I think those things help you get into position to make a few more plays, and I think we've done that."

The Colts also have found a ground game of their own.

Two-time 1,000-yard runner Joseph Addai returned last Sunday against the Oakland Raiders after missing eight consecutive games with a left shoulder injury. Former 1,000-yard runner Dominic Rhodes was re-signed Dec. 7, and former first-round pick Donald Brown is playing the most effective ball of his career.

The result: Indianapolis has gained 4.6 yards per carry over the last three weeks, compared with 3.6 in the first 12 games.

"He (Caldwell) said we weren't going to go anywhere without you guys (the offensive line) and that kind of stuck with us," left tackle Charlie Johnson said. "You can kind of see that in the way we've been running the ball the last couple of weeks, and the way Peyton has been throwing the ball the last couple of weeks."

Will it be enough to help the Colts make another deep playoff run?

"It does have a little bit of that feel from '06," Mathis said. "But there's only about five or six guys left from that team, we have a different coach, so this is a completely different team. We've just got to do what we do."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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