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Colts offense looks super

After being pasted by the Colts 41-9 on Thanksgiving Day, Lions coach Steve Mariucci, who knows a thing or two about offense, was asked if he could recommend a way to stop the Indianapolis offensive machine.

Without skipping a beat, Mariucci replied, "Good luck."

Judging from this season's record breaking performance, opponents have had little luck.

Behind quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and a trio of receivers who have tormented defensive backs all year, the Colts (12-4) enter the playoffs looking like a team on a mission not to just make it to the Super Bowl, but to shatter records along the way.

So what hope is there for the Broncos, who travel to Indianapolis for Sunday's wild card playoff game?

"I don't think anybody wants to play Peyton Manning, to be honest with you," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said in Denver. "Anybody that does is not very smart. He is a heck of a football player, and we have a heck of a challenge ahead of us. We know how good he is."

This year, the seventh-year pro set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes, breaking Dan Marino's mark of 48 set in 1984. Manning completed 336 of 497 passes for 4,557 yards and threw only 10 interceptions.

And, of course, the Colts have plenty of playmakers to complement Manning.

James, whom coach Tony Dungy suggested was the team's MVP, led the AFC with 2,031 yards from scrimmage (1,548 running, 483 receiving) and had nine touchdowns. Receivers Marvin Harrison (86 catches, 1,113 yards, 15 TDs), Reggie Wayne (77 catches, 1,210 yards, 12 TDs) and Brandon Stokely (68 catches, 1,077 yards, 10 TDs) became the first trio of teammates to each record 1,000 yards and 10 TDs in a single season.

The Colts average of 32.6 points per game was best in the league. Oh, and Manning was sacked only 14 times, the fewest in the league.

One key, the Broncos believe, is ball control.

In a regular season game late in 2003, the Broncos were able to slam the door on the Colts offense by rushing for 227 yards and dominating the time of possession (44:58). Manning hardly had a chance to get going.

"You try to keep their offense off the field, for one," Shanahan said. "In the (2003) game, we were able to control the tempo of the game. You try to limit the amount of times that their offense can be out there, because they are going to make things happen if they are out there a lot. You can't turn the ball over, (you have to) eliminate mistakes. We were able to do that in that game."

A few weeks later, in the opening round of the playoffs against the Broncos, the Colts scored on their first seven possessions, including five touchdown passes by Manning (22-of-26, 377 yards) in prevailing over Denver, 41-10.

The idea of grinding out the clock with the ground game suits the Broncos, who have a tradition of running the ball well. Behind Reuben Droughns, quarterback Jake Plummer and third-down back Tatum Bell, the Broncos averaged 145.8 yards per game, fourth best in the NFL.

But what happens when the Colts offense takes the field? Those options aren't nearly as enticing.

On a recent national conference call, Marino said he once asked Manning how to stop the Colts and got no reply. But the former Dolphins quarterback suggested there are ways to slow them down, starting with rushing only three linemen and dropping eight into coverage.

"You make him be patient and make him try to beat you running the football (which uses up clock)," Marino said. "Don't give up the big play and play that bend-don't-break type defense and, hopefully, somehow you can get some hits on people. They can fumble, turn it over and make some mistakes."

Another method, Marino said, would be to try to duplicate what the Patriots did in the AFC Championship game in January _ hammer the eligible receivers within the 5-yard cushion.

The problem with that strategy is that in response to the mauling inflicted by the Patriots on the Colts last season, officials have been instructed to strictly enforce illegal contact rules.

That seems to favor the Colts.

"It has definitely affected how receivers get releases off the line of scrimmage, because some of the defensive backs are just afraid to do it, to jam and re-route guys," Marino said. "They just don't do it like they did before."

Then there's the issue of hidden yardage. The last thing the Broncos want to do is give the Colts a short field for an easy score.

In a 34-31 loss to the Colts in December, the Chargers, who twice had two-touchdown leads, played superbly on defense and offense for the bulk of the game. But their special teams allowed the Colts to sneak away with the win.

Returns by Dominic Rhodes of 88 yards for a touchdown and 60 yards to set up another boosted the Colts.

"The sad part is we lost the battle of field position because we didn't cover kickoffs worth a damn," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said after the game. "And that, ultimately, is what enabled the Colts to beat us."

The other lesson the Broncos can take from the Chargers is that the Colts offense does not stop coming.

Through three quarters, San Diego kept the Colts in check and looked poised for the upset. But in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Chargers let their guard down. During that span, Manning was 12-of-19 for 198 yards and a deciding touchdown, and he had back to back completions of 23 and 35 yards in overtime, which led to a winning field goal by Mike Vanderjagt.

"We didn't finish," Chargers safety Terrence Kiel said after the game. "It's like we were, I'm not going to say playing too soft, but it was like we were playing too safe, I guess."

But, Shanahan noted, the Colts lost four games this year. They dropped road games in New England (27-24), Kansas City (45-35) and Denver (33-14), when Manning and other starters played very little. Their only home loss came to the Jaguars (27-24), when Fred Taylor rushed for 107 yards. And in that game, the Jaguars held the ball for nine minutes in the second quarter and 12 minutes in the third, essentially taking away Colts momentum. The Colts didn't help themselves with 11 penalties for 62 yards.

"You've got to be patient," Shanahan said. "Jacksonville was pretty patient. A few teams (beat the Colts) this year, they were patient. That's what you've got to do."

_ Information from other news sources was used in this report.

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