- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Don’t doubt the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts’ status as Super Bowl contenders usually breeds skepticism, considering their perennially weak defense and their inability to beat the Patriots in either the regular season or the playoffs.

But this season, something already seems different.

A slew of playoff teams from last season — the Vikings, Packers, Rams, Seahawks, Chargers, Broncos and Jets — were upset in Week 1 by regular-season also-rans.

The Colts, meanwhile, handled the supposedly playoff-bound Ravens with ease 24-7.

The offensive capabilities of a team led by quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Marvin Harrison never are in doubt. Manning threw a record 49 touchdown passes last season, and the duo set a record for most career completions by a tandem.

But this is a better Colts team all around this season, thanks to the addition of rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson and franchise defensive tackle Corey Simon.

Simon was cut by the Eagles last month after a contract dispute, and he missed all of training camp. He arrived in Indianapolis looking much heavier than his listed 293 pounds. But he was on the field regularly as the defense, which ranked 29th last season, came close to shutting out the Ravens.

With Simon and underrated Monte Reagor inside and pass-rushing ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis outside, the Colts finally have a line worthy of defensive-minded coach Tony Dungy.

Colts owner Jim Irsay thinks so much of Dungy, who’s 38-17 with three playoff berths since taking over in 2002, that he gave the coach a three-year, $15 million contract extension to keep him in Indianapolis through 2009.

“An outstanding coach, a proven winner is an invaluable asset,” said Irsay, himself more secure now that the Colts and state officials have agreed to build a new stadium in downtown Indianapolis. “He’s the type of individual you want to represent your franchise.”

For all of Dungy’s success, he’s just 2-3 in the postseason with the Colts, with each defeat coming by at least 10 points. And he’s just 2-2 against the Jaguars, who visit Indianapolis on Sunday.

“They play us smart,” Dungy said. “They play sound. They make us go the long route. We put up some yardage figures. [But] we haven’t had a 40-point game on them.”

Jacksonville linebacker Mike Peterson, a former Colt, said the Jaguars aren’t fazed by the talent of Peyton Manning and Co.

“We don’t care if it’s Indianapolis or New England, we can shut you down,” said Peterson, whose defense throttled Seattle’s high-octane offense in the opener. “That’s just the swagger we have.”

No laughing matter — The Vikings (at rising Cincinnati), Seahawks (at NFC finalist Atlanta), Chargers and Broncos (who meet) are staring at 0-2 starts and losing more of their swagger. After losing to the Falcons, the Eagles should have an easier time with the 49ers, but that’s what the Rams expected, too. And Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb has a bruised chest that prompted a call to Steve McNair, his Tennessee counterpart who has had a similar injury.

“It hurt to laugh. It hurt to do anything,” McNair said. “I told him, ‘Don’t rush it. Take your time and heal because [if] you go out there and aggravate it, it’s going to continue to get worse.’ ”

Smith sounds off — As a young Redskins linebacker, Derek Smith was media-shy, but after nine years, he’s second in seniority on the 49ers and not afraid to speak his mind, particularly when it comes to Eagles receiver Terrell Owens, his ex-teammate. Owens typically practiced once a week in his last 11/2 seasons with the 49ers. That aggravated Smith, who predicts ultimate doom for the Eagles.

“I didn’t like the fact that someone is in there playing dominoes with their friends while we’re out there practicing,” Smith said. “They’re in there sleeping on the rehab table, and then they just come out Friday because they think they’re that good and they can come out and play. I don’t care who you are. No one’s above the team. We’re absolutely better off without him. I don’t think he buys into anything but his own thing. You put a bad apple in with a bunch of good apples, and it’s just a matter of time before the other apples spoil.”

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