TAMPA — Ronde Barber was asked the other day if the Monday Night Football matchup with the 0-3 Colts lacked a little pizzazz because of the absence of injured Colts QB Peyton Manning.
Barber's eyes turned to saucers.
"Can I say … no?" the cornerback said, smiling. "No, you obviously want the best for Peyton. But this is a different team without Peyton. He was the cog that made that offense go. There's a reason why he's won so many MVPs. He's a special type of player, and so far this year, they haven't found that guy to replace him.
"But they've still got the same talent. They've got (WR) Reggie Wayne. They've still got (TE) Dallas Clark. (RB) Joseph Addai looks awesome running the football right now. So we're not going to take them lightly because he's not there."
Manning, who recently underwent his third neck surgery, is 2-0 against the Bucs, having passed for a combined 639 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
With veteran Kerry Collins recovering from a concussion, the Colts are expected to start third-year pro Curtis Painter, the former Purdue star who has completed 33 percent of his regular-season passes and owns a career 23.8 rating.
On the surface, it's a big break for the Bucs. But Barber knows that kind of thinking can get a young team in trouble.
"We're going to prepare for them as if they're the team that dominated the NFL for so many years," Barber said. "(Painter), obviously, is green somewhat. But the offense is still the Colts offense. You just don't want him to get hot against us."
The Colts are having a tough time adjusting to life without Manning, 35. No surprise there. The four-time league MVP never missed a game until this season and had a savant-like ability to call plays and dissect defenses.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell said he addressed the impact of Manning's absence head-on with his team.
"I think the best remedy for any situation that's out of the ordinary, where you're facing some adversity, is to be truthful and to kind of lay it out on the table, which we did," Caldwell said. "(We said), 'Hey, listen, Peyton is not here, and whomever we have at quarterback is not going to be able to do the same things that he's able to do.'
"When you think about it, here's a guy who's been in this system his entire career, knows it like the back of his hand. When you couple that with the fact that he's literally brilliant, there's not going to be too many people who can do what he does in this system."
If the Bucs need convincing the Colts aren't going to play dead, they only have to watch the tape of last week's last-second loss to the Steelers.
"It's tough, and I know how serious it's got to be for Peyton to miss time," former Colts and Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "The operation recovery obviously wasn't coming along the way he wanted. They've got to retool the team. And they will, but it's going to take time."
ISN'T THAT SPECIAL: The best acquisition in many years for the Bucs is punter/kickoff specialist Michael Koenen, whose net punting average of 43.3 ranks seventh in the NFL.
But it's hard not to be impressed with the job done by first-year special teams coach Dwayne Stukes. Tampa Bay is first in the NFL in opponent's average drive start after kickoffs (16.8-yard line), sixth in kickoff return average (32.2 yards) and 13th in punt return average (10.8). Meanwhile, Connor Barth has made all six of his field goals.
"We want to be known as No. 1 in kickoff and punt returns," LB Adam Hayward said.
"We've always been a good cover team. We've got the best punter, the best kickoff guy and the best field goal kicker. But we want to be No. 1 in kick returns. That's the prize."