- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

The expectations for the Indianapolis Colts are decidedly lower for these playoffs than in seasons past — so low, in fact, they barely are detectable, even to coach Tony Dungy.

“I think we’re very far under the radar,” Dungy said. “When everybody thinks you’re playing well, it’s usually because you are.”

Few would confuse the Colts, despite their 12-4 record, with a team that’s playing well heading into their first-round playoff matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) tomorrow in Indianapolis.

The Colts, who this season won a fourth straight division title, built a reputation in recent years for rolling in the regular season and flaming out in the playoffs.

They were stunned by the Pittsburgh Steelers in their postseason opener last year, humbled by the New England Patriots in the second round the year before and battered in a 41-0 loss to the New York Jets in the first round after the 2002 season.

This season, however, the Colts collapsed before they playoffs even began. They opened 9-0 but lost four of their final seven games — the reason the Chiefs, the last of 12 playoff qualifiers, are given a great shot at pulling an upset in Indianapolis.

The Colts still have the NFL’s most dominant offense of the last four years, led by All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning. The culprit, however, is a run defense that ranks as the worst in the league.

That handicap will be even more severe tomorrow against Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who, with 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns, is the second-leading rusher in the NFL. The bruising back also set an NFL record with 416 carries this season.

“If I was on the other team, I would say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can run on the Colts,’ ” said defensive end Dwight Freeney, one of several quick but undersized defensive starters. “It’s up to us to step up to the plate, to go out there and answer all those critics. [The Chiefs] are going to ride the horse that got them there. We have to step up and make some plays.”

Having hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders back from a knee injury should aid that effort.

“We can’t look at it [like], ‘Bob’s coming back, so automatically we’re going to be better,’ ” Dungy said. “Everyone has to do their job, and Bob is certainly a big part of it. He has a lot of speed and striking ability.”

But Sanders knows Johnson won’t be easy to tackle.

“Larry’s a big guy,” Sanders said. “He has good quickness. He’s real shifty. He’s got great ability stiff-arming. When I do get a chance to hit him, I’m going to make sure to wrap him up and bring him to the ground.”

Chiefs coach Herman Edwards, then coach of the Jets, brought his best friend and mentor’s team — Dungy’s Colts — to the ground emphatically with the 41-point thumping in the playoffs after the 2002 season.

Edwards hopes for a more methodical upset behind the running of Johnson tomorrow.

“You’re not going to get in a shootout battle and win the game,” Edwards said. “So your whole mind-set is to play keep-away. How do you play keep-away? You have to try to run the ball. If you can run it and they don’t get up a couple of scores, you can continue to run it.”

That formula worked for the Houston Texans two weeks ago. The lowly Texans limited the Colts to seven possessions and 46 plays and hammered burly back Ron Dayne at the defense en route to a 27-24 upset.

For the Colts, it was a familiar situation: Opposing runners averaged 5.3 yards a carry and 173 yards a game against them.

The Chiefs also are drawing inspiration from the death of beloved owner Lamar Hunt. Kansas City needed to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday — their first home game since Hunt died on Dec. 13 — to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. The Chiefs won and advanced after home losses by the Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tennessee Titans.

“Obviously the guy who’s looking down on us is Lamar,” Edwards said. “He’s got a big smile on his face. That was for Lamar. I just wish he was around to see us get in.”

The Colts usually get in but the question remains whether they can convert all their talent and division titles into playoff success. They own a 3-4 record in the past four postseasons and haven’t reached a Super Bowl in 36 years, when the franchise was located in Baltimore.

Offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, for one, likes the lack of expectations for his team following its stunning loss at home to the Steelers in last season’s playoffs and its struggles down the stretch this season.

“We’re going to have to fight and grind our way to winning a championship,” Glenn said. “I kind of like it that way. … I think this team is ready to fight.”

Perhaps. But are the Colts ready for Larry Johnson?

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