And so one of the NFL’s flagship franchises is now gearing up for another shot at it, after a season many considered Manning’s best and one that saw a handful of young Colt stars emerge. Can Indy keep it going? For that, we turn to Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star, who has covered the Colts since they moved from Baltimore, for insight. Here’s his take on the team the Patriots will take on just a few days before Thanksgiving …
Where they’re good: On offense, of course. Not only is Peyton Manning coming off a record fourth MVP season, he’s getting more toys to play with. Anthony Gonzalez, a 2007 first-round draft pick, is expected to be 100 percent after missing virtually all of 2009 with a knee injury. He reinforces a receiving corps that includes Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and tight end Dallas Clark. Good luck trying to keep everyone happy, Peyton. Wayne and Clark each had 100 catches last season. Garcon and Collie burst on the scene with huge seasons after Gonzalez was lost in the season opener.
The big camp questions: How will the receiver competition shake out? The Colts routinely employ three- and four-receiver formations, but a quality player still will be on the outside looking in much of the time. Wayne and Clark won’t have to deal with limited snaps, so that leaves Garcon, Collie and Gonzalez to battle for serious playing time. Garcon might have the edge over Gonzalez to serve as Wayne’s complement on the outside. He displayed outside deep speed and game-breaking talents in 2009. Gonzalez might have to battle Collie for the role as slot receiver. Gonzalez wants to regain his role as No. 2 receiver, but that might not happen.
Can Bob Sanders stay on the field? Since being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract, Sanders has appeared in just eight games. Injuries have KO’d him, the latest being a ruptured biceps tendon in ’09. The defense is markedly better with Sanders on the field even though backup Melvin Bullitt has been a solid fill-in. The 2010 season could be career-defining for Sanders. If injuries continue to limit his availability, the team could part ways with him. He’s due base salaries of $5 million in 2011 and $7 million in 2012.
Can the offensive line satisfy Bill Polian? The team president was critical of the offensive line’s performance in the Super Bowl loss to New Orleans. Shortly thereafter, the team released starting left guard Ryan Lilja. During offseason work, former starting left tackle Tony Ugoh was moved to guard. Clearly, change is coming. Any new combination will need the preseason to gain its cohesion. Bolstering the process will be the return of Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday and tackles Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem.
This needs to happen to win big: Sorry to state the obvious, but Manning must remain upright and on the field. He’s arguably the most indispensable player in the league. Management has done a great job of surrounding Manning with blue-chip talent, and Manning has responded by maximizing his supporting cast. The team enters 2010 with a string of seven straight seasons with at least 12 wins — that’s an NFL record — and eight straight seasons of reaching the playoffs. The key has been Manning. The backup QB situation is precarious at best. Curtis Painter, a 2009 sixth-round draft pick, struggled in two appearances at the end of last season.
Where they stack up: The Colts were a league-best 14-2 in 2009 and reached the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. They appear to be a better team heading into 2010. Their major players return and remain in their prime — Manning, Wayne, Clark, Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis — and Sanders and Gonzalez return after being non-factors in ’09. Sanders and Gonzalez are like adding two seasoned first-round picks to the mix. Barring an injury to a key player, the Colts once again should be considered the front-runner in the AFC South and for a top seed in the AFC. The beat goes on.