- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

MIAMI — The Indianapolis Colts relied on Peyton Manning’s arm to get them to the playoffs each season. When it came to winning the Super Bowl, the Colts’ running game and defense gave Indianapolis the edge it needed.

“We’ve been labeled a lot of things,” said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who responded to retirement rumors by all but promising he would return next season. “We’ve been labeled a team that could do well in the regular season but couldn’t finish it off in the playoffs. We’ve been labeled a finesse team, a passing offense. We’ve been labeled a soft defense, a dome team. In reality, we have just as a good a record on the road as we do at home. We run the ball as well as anybody in the league for the last seven or eight years.”

Indianapolis proved that during its four-game championship run, with running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes outrushing their counterparts each time while the offense beat great defenses in Baltimore and Chicago (in a downpour) away from the controlled environment of RCA Dome.

“It’s great for the country to see that we could win a lot of different ways,” Dungy said. “We won low-scoring, field goal games. We’ve won with run defense. We won when we had to score 30 points in the second half against the great defense that New England has. [Last night] was the Bears’ type of environment. They’re a team known for running the ball and playing defense. And last night was a night that you had to do that with the weather conditions. We outplayed them at their own game.”

Dungy was a main reason for that. He made the playoffs in eight of his first 11 seasons as an NFL coach but heard criticism for his inability to reach the Super Bowl. Manning, who earned game MVP honors, overcame similar criticism after failing in his six previous playoff appearances.

But both Dungy and Manning know Sunday’s victory came because of contributions from other key players, many of whom enter this offseason uncertain about their futures with the team.

As Manning said: “Not all the players that got that trophy last night might be on the team next year.”

Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney, leading tackler Cato June, top cornerback Nick Harper and linebacker Rob Morris all are free agents, although Freeney could be stuck with the franchise tag.

Indianapolis is at least $2.5 million under the salary cap but figures to save $7 million by reworking Manning’s hefty contract. Guards Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott and cornerback Jason David all are restricted free agents, meaning the Colts have the right to match any offers they receive.

Manning, All-Pro receiver Marvin Harrison, Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn, center Jeff Saturday, Harper and Morris are the only starters who will be at least 30 years old next season. The Colts have ready replacements for Harper in Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden. Gilbert Gardner perhaps could replace Morris.

“We have this saying: The next man up has to go,” Dungy said. “That was exemplified last night when Nick Harper and Marlin Jackson got hurt and Matt Giordano and Kelvin Hayden came in and make plays. [Right tackle] Ryan Diem got hurt, so Charlie Johnson basically plays the last three quarters and we don’t miss a beat.

“That’s what’s so neat about this team. We’ve always had the great Pro Bowl players, but what we had this year was young guys ready to go once we needed them. It was a growing process. That’s what happened to us in the middle of the year [a 1-3 record from Nov. 19 through Dec. 10], but when we got into the playoffs those guys were ready.”

Offseason moves will be key to the Colts’ ability to repeat, a fact Dungy was quick to emphasize. The 2004 New England Patriots and 1998 Denver Broncos have been the only repeat champions during the first 13 years of the salary cap era.

“It’s very difficult to repeat in this league,” Dungy said. “It’s so competitive that any little slippage is not going to allow you to get back to the top. We know how tough it is to get here, but to continually be here takes something special. We’re going to talk about the challenge of what it’s going to take. It’s a challenge I look forward to helping the guys through. I still have a lot of passion for the game. After a night like last night, how can you not love it? I’m not burned out. I’m not tired at all. I’m very, very fired up. I’m looking forward to coming back.”

So is Manning, around whom this team was built.

“I’ve seen past quarterbacks that have won a Super Bowl get the pass other years,” Manning said. “They have a bad year [and people] say, ‘He won a Super Bowl. We’ll give him the pass.’ I don’t want the pass. Next year, my goal is to be a better quarterback, and I feel like I should because of the experience that I gained this year.”

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