Always, it has been about the Colts defense. Great offense; bad defense. When will the Colts fix their defense? When will the offense not have to score 30 points a game to win?
Well, not so fast. The situation has changed a little. Heading into this Sunday's game between the Jaguars and Colts at the RCA Dome, the Colts defense is in the top 10 of all three of the league's defensive rankings: seventh overall, tied for eighth against the run and 10th against the pass.
Meanwhile, the vaunted Colts offense is lagging with a 23rd ranking overall; 17th rushing and 23rd passing. Of course, those numbers are the result of a touchdown-less performance in the Colts' 9-6, season-opening win in Cleveland. The offense came to life in thrashing the Titans this past Sunday.
But coming off last year's 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets, Manning and the Colts offense had as many critics as the defense did. What's happened to the Colts offense? Why can't Manning win a postseason game? Well, in the sixth year of his career and with running back Edgerrin James back in the fold, Manning and the Colts offense have run out of excuses. It's time to get it done.
"This is a game of weapons," offensive coordinator Tom Moore said. "When you have your weapons, you have options, and we have those options this year. The worst thing anybody can say about an offense is that it's predictable and sometimes, last year, we were predictable. That's my fault. I didn't do a good job," Moore said.
Without a doubt, the Colts have weapons, especially now that James appears to have made a full recovery from his 2001 ACL. James re-joins Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison in re-establishing what most "experts" consider to be the NFL's top offensive trio.
"No more excuses," Moore said. "Everybody has injuries. My job is to find a way to score points with the people we've got, and I didn't do that."
The Colts didn't do that in the season-opener, but they were bailed out by their defense. Imagine that. Last Sunday, in beating the Titans, the Colts offense and defense shared the glory.
Of course, the Colts looked much-improved on defense early last season, then slowly wore down as the season progressed. Whatever hope the Colts have of sustaining defensive improvement this season would seem to rest with 2002 first-round pick Dwight Freeney, a pass-rushing demon and play-maker who appears to be headed for stardom.
But it's the return of James that may be the true difference-maker. He was the missing link last season. His absence left the Colts in a one-dimensional mode, and Manning clearly does not function as well without the threat of a running game.
"I'm really curious to see if we're going to run the ball as well as I think we will," Manning said, referring to the return of James and the remodeling of the Colts' offensive line. "Edge, he looks extremely quick to me and from what we've seen he looks like he's back, but you're always curious to see how far he's come back."
If James returns the Colts' offense to the lofty place it held in the NFL rankings prior to his injury, then all else would seem to hinge on coach Tony Dungy's defense. Two goal-line stands against the Browns gave the coach hope.
"That's indicative of the way this defense has grown up," linebacker Rob Morris said. "Last year, it's not that we would have given up, but I don't think we would have had the poise to stand in there and fight through it like we did (against the Browns). You hold an NFL team without a touchdown, that's huge."
"A couple of years ago this wouldn't have happened," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "If the offense didn't come out and play a (great) game, we would lose."
This Sunday's Jaguars-Colts showdown at the RCA Dome (one p.m.) is an AFC South clash that will go a long way toward determining an eventual champion.