INDIANAPOLIS -- From the moment Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson took his first handoff Saturday at the RCA Dome, the NFL's second-leading rusher this season was surrounded by members of the second-worst defense in the league.
Were these really the same Indianapolis Colts whom Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Maurice Jones-Drew pounded for 166 yards and two touchdowns on only 15 carries a month before? The same Colts whom Houston Texans retread Ron Dayne punished for 153 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries two weeks later?
In holding Johnson to 32 yards on 13 carries, the Colts' defense had gone from being severely dissed as the league's worst against the run to suddenly being celebrated for leading the team to a 23-8 victory in an AFC wild-card playoff game.
Will the same defense show up Saturday against the Ravens at M&T; Bank Stadium?
Even Colts coach Tony Dungy isn't quite sure.
"I kind of gave them a vocabulary lesson - one game is an aberration, two games is a coincidence, four or five or six games is a pattern," Dungy said yesterday. "We need to develop a pattern and make sure it's not an aberration or a coincidence."
There was much talk here last week that the return of former Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, would give the defense a boost because of the swagger and physical play he brings despite being only 5 feet 8 and 206 pounds.
Sanders, who had played in only one game since getting hurt against Houston on Sept. 17, made just two tackles against the Chiefs and had a relatively meaningless interception in the fourth quarter, but his presence didn't go unnoticed.
"He brings an intensity back to the defense," defensive end Raheem Brock said. "He's a leader back there. He takes charge. He goes out there and makes plays, he's a very aggressive player. He gets everybody riled up. He's a playmaker, and he gets the momentum on our side."
Said cornerback Nick Harper: "As far as a run stopper, he's like another linebacker. He's great in the box. He knows the defense well, he knows his reads, he's more experienced than some of the guys we had back there [when Sanders was hurt], and his reads were a lot faster than those guys."
Sanders has tried to downplay the significance of his return in order not to denigrate those who stepped in for him, or to make it seem as if he is any more important to the defense than linebacker Cato June, who led the team in tackles, or pass rushers Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.
"Last week we definitely stepped it up a notch," Sanders said. "We didn't put in any new defense. We didn't do anything different than we did all year. We had the same guys out there. That just shows everybody that we can play like we need to play. When we're winning, we can play that way."
To make his point, Sanders recalled the first play from scrimmage for the Chiefs, when Johnson was gang-tackled for no gain.
"I wasn't even close to the play, and they stopped it in the backfield and [defensive back Marlin Jackson] made a great play," Sanders said. "I think it has to do a lot with just being in the playoffs and knowing that it's important now. Every team is real good and we just have to focus on getting better."
Sanders' return certainly filled a void for the Colts, but there still is a piece of the defense that is missing. Defensive tackle Montae Reagor has been out since he was injured in a car accident the morning of the game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 22. Reagor suffered serious cuts on his face and head.
When the Colts faced the Chiefs, Reagor was on the sideline for the first time since the accident. He is still awaiting word from team doctors whether he can travel to Baltimore this weekend. Having Reagor on the sideline last week provided another emotional lift for the Colts.
"He's like a player coach when he's on the field, and [last week] he came out there and motivated us," Brock said.
Dungy doesn't believe that losing Sanders and Reagor for the bulk of the season was the sole cause of his team's defensive lapses.
"There are no easy solutions," Dungy said. "Obviously you want your better players in there, but that is part of what we always talk about. When you have guys go down, you have other guys step up. It was Bob Sanders being back, and Bob definitely helped us. But we had a lot of other players look sharper than they had." firstname.lastname@example.org