With the Colts' bye week finally behind us, it's time again for 10 questions about the Colts and the league.
10. What did we learn about the AFC while the Colts were taking a week off?
The wave has fallen in San Diego. Their best days are behind them.
Josh Cribbs is being held captive in Cleveland.
Houston has multiple personality syndrome.
9. Which teams, then, are the main contenders in the AFC?
Just three: Indianapolis, Denver, and New England.
First, Denver. They really ought to be 4-2. New England had chances to finish them off and they got the lucky bounce in the Bengal game. Still, this is obviously a talented team that reminds me a lot of the 2001 New England Patriots.
Tom Brady was more of a game manager then. He threw short, safe passes, and the offense was designed on ball control while on defense they played solid. Sounds like the 2009 Broncos, doesn't it?
As for New England, I really don't think the Titan game shows us that they'll start blowing out people again like they did in 2007. It was just a perfect storm game, the storm being the snow, and the Titans playing like they'd never seen the white stuff before.
What the game does give them is confidence. They had lost some swagger in the Bronco loss. It's back now.
On a side note, don't get too excited about Laurence Maroney's performance. He's always been slow to hit holes. In the snow, against a poor reacting defense, it played to his advantage.
Then there's the Colts. Offensively, they are the strongest of the three. Defensively, I think Denver may be a little better, but it's close. The Colts are obviously in it for the long haul.
8. Weren't there six or seven contenders just a few weeks ago?
Yeah, but they've been exposed.
To be a good team, you beat inconsistent teams as home. Cincinnati looked sloppy on offense, and the loss of Antwan Odom really hurts their defense the rest of the way.
Baltimore can't win the big games. It's a little ironic, though, that the defense has always had to carry the offense. 2009 has been the opposite so far.
San Diego is done. They can't run the ball, and Rivers strikes me as the type of quarterback that puts up big numbers against bad team but struggles against good ones. He looked average against Denver.
That leaves Pittsburgh, which would be my fourth team in the AFC right now. They have issues defensively. They let bad teams like Detroit and Cleveland hang around far too long. In the end, though, I see them rising up in the muddled AFC North.
But they'll be a fourth seed, and I can't see them beating any of the top three on the road at this moment.
8. Anthony Gonzalez is questionable for this weekend. Does he return and how does he fit into the offense now?
I don't think he returns this week. They really don't need to rush him back for the Rams game.
But when he does come back, it is a big question. Where exactly do you use him? I think Gonzalez has lost his outside receiver spot. In the preseason, Gonzalez was inconsistent on his ability to create separation and catch the ball on deep routes. Pierre Garcon is capable of doing both.
That leaves Gonzalez to play the slot. But what about Austin Collie? Collie has a great nose for the first down marker. He knows where he's supposed to be on the field, and his late first half touchdown against Tennessee showed he can handle the traffic of the middle of the field and take some shots.
Gonzalez's return is going to take some targets way from Collie, and maybe some from Garcon. I don't see the Colts sending them all out at once, not with Joseph Addai being used so effectively out of the backfield.
It's a good problem to have, Gonzalez has talent, but you'd hate to see Collie and Garcon lose opportunities considering their better-than-predicted production so far.
7. Keys to the St. Louis game?
Maintain form. It may be as simple as that. If Tony Dungy's old mantra, just do what we do, can come to play, the Colts should win this game comfortably. The defense will have to be aware of Steven Jackson, who's capable of beating you running and receiving.
Still, the Rams are without their best receiver, Donnie Avery, and their defense is surrendering over 380 yards per game.
6. No bye week rust for the Colts then?
Not likely. The Colts haven't lose a game coming off the bye since 2004. That '04 loss to Jacksonville was their only post-bye week defeat during the Dungy era. I expect Coach Jim Caldwell to start his own streak this week.
5. How will the addition of Matt Stove impact the kicking game.
Probably the best thing about losing Adam Vinatieri for while is the fact that we didn't have to worry about signing a strong legged kicker who lacked accuracy. Rookie Pat McAfee is handling kickoffs, which gave the Colts the luxury of finding a kicker who can be consistent inside the 40 yard line.
Stover is that guy. The Colts aren't as concerned about losing the 40-50 range. In fact, it may lead to the Colts attempting more fourth down conversions in this area.
4. Is Fili Moala ready to step up?
He'll have to be. After the surprising jettisoning of Ed Johnson, Moala will become active against the Rams. With the way the Colts rotate lineman, it'll help keep some of the pressure off Moala.
This is probably the biggest concern on if the defense can keep it's fantastic play going. Moala looked good at times at camp, and with the others in the rotation, I don't think we'll see a significant drop off in production for the defense. Maybe even an improvement, considering he may not be the only new face in the game Sunday.
3. Who else could make an impact on Sunday?
Bob Sanders. This is the first game where Caldwell sounds somewhat optimistic about Sanders return. Like Gonzalez, there's no need to rush him back for this game. Unlike Gonzalez, however, there's no question the Colts will get him back on the field.
His replacement, Melvin Bullitt, has been spectacular in relief. Sanders, though, brings a particular identity to the Colts defense. If I were Caldwell, I'd still use Bullitt, if only to keep Sanders as more of a situational player. If Bullitt can be used to give Sanders 15-20 less plays per game, it may be enough to keep Sanders healthy for the rest of the year.
A part-time Sanders is significantly better than the Sanders we've had so far this year.
It worked for Atlanta and John Abraham. The Falcons rotated him in and out and kept him fresh. Because of that, his production skyrocketed in 2008. Sanders could benefit from the same treatment. With Bullitt, the Colts have the talent to make it work.
2. What's this say about the 2009 Colts?
It's still a little too early to say they are the best Colts team ever, though the possibility is there.
What it does say is that this is the deepest team of the Peyton Manning era. Even in the Super Bowl year of 2006, the Colts needed a draft day trade for Booger McFarland to sure up the defense. This year, the trade deadline came and went for the Colts.
The Colts are happy with their lineup. The return of guys like Gonzalez and Sanders adds to two already potent units. Remember we stay haven't seen a lot of Kelvin Hayden or Marlin Jackson either. This is a very deep squad, which will help immensely come December and January when every NFL team is dealing with injuries.
1. Prediction for this Sunday?
Colts 31, Rams 14...and the best thing about the bye finally happens. It's over.