Sunday, October 28, 2007 Updated: October 31, 10:57 AM ET
For the Colts, it's finally time to focus on the Pats
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six dropped passes. Two fumbles. Several untimely penalties. Missed tackles on defense. And, uncharacteristically, a lot of misfires by quarterback Peyton Manning, who finished with a completion quota of less than 50 percent for the first time in 19 regular-season outings, along with a rare sub-100.0 efficiency rating.
That's how the Indianapolis Colts prepared for the Big Game -- next Sunday's highly anticipated and already overhyped matchup against the similarly undefeated New England Patriots at the RCA Dome.
Oh, did we mention that the Colts, after stumbling around early, summarily dispatched the Carolina Panthers, 31-7, to stretch their pre-November winning streak in the past three years to 20 games while becoming just the second franchise in NFL history to start three straight campaigns with a 7-0 record?
Peyton Manning wasn't at his best, but he did finally beat the Panthers for the first time.
On a day when the Colts were about as sloppy as a toddler eating spaghetti with his fingers, the defending Super Bowl champs finally can look forward. Yep, the subject relegated to the Colts' collective subconscious for the first eight weeks of the season, the forbidden talking point, is now more than just a blip on the radar screen. It's finally grist for discussion.
Although not much discussion from Indianapolis players.
Following the lead of coach Tony Dungy, who cautioned his troops before the media entered the locker room about getting too caught up in the Patriots hoopla, most of the Colts firmly toed the party line.
Still, the moment mandated that the Pats could not be ignored completely, with even Dungy grudgingly acknowledging that this week will be "a circus."
Asked whether he felt his teammates were lying a bit when they insisted they hadn't thought much yet about New England, typically candid Manning allowed: "Uh, yeah, probably."
That concession was more on-target than Manning was much of the day, as he completed just 14 of 30 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Wideout Reggie Wayne, who accounted for half those completions and 168 yards, was the lone Indianapolis receiver to come up big.
Harassed throughout by a Carolina defense that brought pressure inside, and betrayed by a butterfingered receiving corps attempting to compensate for the absence of Marvin Harrison (bruised knee), Manning nonetheless registered a few milestones.
With a beautiful pump-and-go bomb to Wayne for 59 yards in the third quarter, Manning surpassed legendary Johnny Unitas for most touchdown passes in franchise history. And the victory over the Panthers made him the first quarterback in league annals to post wins against 31 other teams, a feat New England's Tom Brady equaled a few hours later in a 52-7 rout over the Redskins.
In addition, Dungy became the winningest coach in Colts history, surpassing Don Shula's mark of 73 wins.
But in at least a few corners of the Indianapolis locker room, it was the showdown with the Patriots that loomed as history in the making.
"I'm sure it's going to be crazy," defensive end Dwight Freeney said about the Patriots game.
" To this point, it's like they've been doing their thing and we've been doing ours, and none of the players from either team were going to get caught up discussing it. But now, it's almost here, and you can't ignore it. I mean, we'll take a little time to appreciate this [victory], for sure. But by, oh, maybe one minute after midnight tonight, we'll start thinking about [New England]."
Said standout Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who had a game-high 12 tackles: "It's been a long time coming, but the two parallel lines are about to come together now."
To a man, however, Indianapolis players and coaches debunked the suggestion that their flat start to the Carolina game was caused by a premature fixation on the Pats, who have lost to the Colts in the teams' past three meetings, including in last season's AFC Championship Game.
Dungy allowed that he might check out the Patriots-Redskins game before leaving the stadium but said he probably would then take a nap on the plane trip home. Certainly, his team seemed to sleepwalk in the first half
before making some halftime adjustments, then running away from an overmatched opponent that has lost five straight home games by an average of 19.6 points.
The Colts attributed their early problems -- they allowed Carolina to march 80 yards on 18 plays for a TD on the opening drive and failed to get into the end zone themselves until Joseph Addai scored with 1:33 remaining in the first half -- on a schedule that had them scrambling all week.
After beating the Jaguars on "Monday Night Football," Indianapolis had a short work week to prepare for a Carolina team it hadn't played since 2003. And the Panthers were, as Dungy pointed out, coming off a bye, having had two weeks to prepare for the Colts.
Still, once the Colts regained their equilibrium -- limiting the Panthers to seven first downs in the middle two quarters, shutting down wide receiver Steve Smith with more Cover 2 looks than they typically play, and generating just enough offense with Wayne and Addai -- the game became a mismatch.
"We found our focus," Dungy said. "And I think we'll have good focus next week."
And they don't have to hide it.
"It's like, for two months, they've been the unmentionable [topic]," cornerback Marlin Jackson said. "We had to go seven weeks or whatever, and rightly so, focusing on that week's opponent. And I think it's a real strength of this team, and of how the coaches handle us, that we've been able to do that and do it well.
"You always knew what [the Patriots] were doing, but it was kind of, 'OK, let's take care of our own business and concentrate on us, and not worry about anything else.' But that's over with now.
"Finally, the blinders are off."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.