Colts hungry for a victory

The Baltimore Sun

September and October have belonged to the Indianapolis Colts for as long as Tony Dungy has walked their sideline. In the past three seasons, they didn't lose until November - at the earliest - and opened with winning streaks of seven, nine and 13 games.

This September was different. Derailed by July surgery on Peyton Manning's left knee and myriad injuries on the offensive line, the Colts lost twice in the opening month and barely escaped a third defeat.

Here's how rare that 1-2 September was for the Colts: In Dungy's previous six years as coach, they lost a total of two games in September (against 18 wins).

So it wasn't surprising that as the Colts prepared for Sunday's invasion by the marauding Ravens defense, Dungy sounded a note of urgency.

"We normally do [start well], and that's been a little puzzling for us that we haven't had that precision and that energy that we normally have," Dungy said in a conference call this week.

"We're trying to find it, and we're doing the only thing we know how to do, which is practice well and prepare and see if we can get there. But we're certainly not playing as well as we have in September these past few years."

Sunday's staredown between Baltimore's past and present affiliations offers a pair of 2-2 teams in dire need of a win - the Colts to stay close to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC South, the Ravens to stay close to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.

It might not be desperation time yet for the Colts, but they can't afford to give more ground to the 5-0 Titans.

Who has more to lose this week? Probably the Colts.

"We've got to get a streak going, No. 1," Dungy said, "because it's hard to get in playoff contention if you win one, lose one, win one, lose one. We haven't won a home game yet this year; that's a little disappointing. It's hard to be a playoff team if you don't win home games."

Dungy added that a win over the Ravens would give the Colts a tiebreaker in the event of AFC wild-card scenarios.

This marks the fifth straight season the teams will meet, either in the playoffs or regular season. The Colts have won the past five games in the series, dating to 2002.

The trend is obvious and painful for the Ravens.

"Of the games I played against them, the only one we played real bad was last year," linebacker Jarret Johnson said of a 44-20 loss. "Other than that, we had an excellent game plan in the playoff game [January 2007]. We executed, we were rattling him [Manning], we were making them do things they didn't want to do. And we just lost it in the end.

"That's what gets so frustrating because they are such a top-notch offense and we are prepared for them and just haven't been able to pull one out."

Reserve linebacker Nick Greisen says the Colts will be the Colts in cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.

"I expect to find a team that has great confidence, knows it can move the ball," he said. "I know they've gotten off to a slow start, but they are coming back together as a unit and [have] gotten their timing back."

Like last year, the Ravens go into the game short on defensive backs. Depending on the availability of cornerback Fabian Washington, they might be down as many as four players in the secondary.

In December, Manning threw for 249 yards and four touchdowns against a makeshift secondary.

But these Colts aren't nearly as efficient as last season's Colts. On offense, they are averaging a touchdown and 45 total yards fewer per game than last season. In addition to losing Manning for all of training camp to knee rehabilitation, the Colts have had to shuffle four new players into the offensive line, three of them rookies and all of them first-time starters.

"I think timing is something you have to get with your offensive line, as well," Manning said. "We do have some young, new starters in there, and those guys are getting more comfortable with me every week. And I'm getting comfortable with them, as well."

Only recently has Manning been able to execute the team's best running play - the stretch play - where he has to sprint out to his tackles to hand off to running back Joseph Addai. Manning is not 100 percent, though.

"I've sort of gotten tired of answering questions about it," he said of the knee. "It's there. I'm still rehabbing it, so I'm still having to deal with it."

Defensively, the Colts are still vulnerable against the run. They are giving up 188.5 rushing yards per game, worst in the NFL. Even before Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders sprained his ankle in Week 2, they were atrocious against the run.

"We're not happy with our start," Manning said, "especially with the schedule we have coming up, starting with the Ravens. So, we certainly want to try to get on some kind of win streak here."


Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Colts by 4

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