Thursday November 15th, 2007

As the losses mount and mid-November arrives, have you noticed how hard the reign is getting these days in Indianapolis?

The latest blow for the defending Super Bowl champion Colts came Wednesday, with the loss of prized pass rusher Dwight Freeney, the highest-paid defensive player in the league and one of their two true impact performers on that side of the ball. His foot injury has finished his season, making him the team's third defensive starter to wind up on injured reserve this year, along with tackle Anthony McFarland and linebacker Rob Morris.

The injury news in Indy was already alarming. The Colts have been without future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison for four of the past five games, and the reality is that his bruised left knee may continue to limit him for the rest of the year. Starting offensive tackles Tony Ugoh (neck) and Ryan Diem (ankle) have been hurt, as have tight end Dallas Clark (concussion), rookie receiver Tony Gonzalez (thumb), linebackers Freddie Keiaho (ear) and Tyjuan Hagler (neck), as well as backup offensive tackle Charlie Johnson (ankle).

In Sunday night's desultory loss at San Diego, Indy was without six starters, and three more players left the lineup during the game. Only three healthy receivers suited up, and a career-worst six Peyton Manning interceptions ensued. The Colts are losing not just the war of attrition right now, they're starting to lose both games and their aura of superiority, too.

Could anything have encapsulated Indy's changing fortunes more perfectly than Adam Vinatieri -- the epitome of a clutch player -- missing that potential game-winning 29-yard field goal against the Chargers?

Add it all up and it's not hard to wonder if we're watching the beginning of the end when it comes to the defense of Indy's Super Bowl title. Could it be that the Colts will go out with a late-season whimper, rather than a post-season bang? Far too often in recent NFL seasons, that has been the usual scenario for a defending champion. Getting back to the mountaintop the next season has proven to be a much tougher task.

The 2002 Patriots couldn't recapture the magic of their championship run, and missed the playoffs. So did Tampa Bay in '03, and the Steelers in '06. A couple more teams that made it back to the playoffs the next year -- St. Louis in 2000 and Baltimore in '01 -- couldn't get past the wild card and divisional round, respectively. Only the '03-04 Patriots have bucked the trend.

For the Colts, who began this season so promisingly at 7-0 and seemingly immune to the post-Super Bowl blues, the news has all been bad since the calendar flipped to November. The breaks of the game have started to go against them, the injuries have mounted, and their vulnerabilities are showing.

It started, of course, in that ominous fourth quarter at home against New England in Week 9. With a 10-point lead and less than 10 minutes to play, a Colts defense that had blunted the powerful Patriots all day suddenly faded when it was needed most. The offense too disappeared, and New England had struck a major blow toward winning the AFC's coveted homefield advantage in the playoffs.

Then came San Diego, and more fourth-quarter mistakes leading to a second consecutive narrow loss to an AFC division leader. Adding to the Colts' misery, Manning and Vinatieri were the most unlikely of culprits. But as awful as it looked at times against the Chargers, the injury-decimated Colts were in position to win in the game's final moments, and they didn't. That's the bottom line, and that's what should give you a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach if you're a tried and true believer in the Blue and White.

Suddenly Indy's Super Bowl success seems quite a long time ago. That's how quickly the residual benefits of that championship after-glow can dissipate in the NFL. One week, you're the proud and respected defending champion, and days later, you find yourself on a losing streak and facing the same week-to-week win-now pressures that dictate the fortunes of the vast majority of teams.

At 7-2 and facing a home game this week against the struggling Chiefs (4-5 and losers of two in a row themselves), the Colts obviously aren't in desperate straits just yet. But here are the facts: Indy holds a one-game lead in the AFC South over both Jacksonville and Tennessee (6-3), and the Colts trail the 9-0 Patriots by what amounts to three games in the AFC homefield advantage race. Pittsburgh (7-2) would be in the AFC's No. 2 seed if the playoffs opened today, by virtue of having one fewer loss in the conference than Indianapolis.

The Colts haven't lost three games in a row since midseason in 2002, but they're not completely unfamiliar with the situation. Indy has had a two-game losing streak in each of the past three seasons, and after starting last year at 9-0, they dropped four of the final seven games in the regular season, blowing their inside track on a first-round playoff bye in the process.

We know how that one turned out. Indy went on a mission in the postseason, winning four games in a row in the playoffs and culminating the whole saga with that big confetti shower in the rain at Dolphin Stadium.

But that was last season, and this is now, and the Colts look like the latest defending champion to learn the vast difference between those two points in time. November has not been kind, and recent indications are that the Colts are not up to warding off challenges to the throne.

It took a while, but there's no mistaking that the post-Super Bowl blues have finally arrived in Indianapolis. In reality, the Colts title defense may be all but over, their turn atop the NFL world soon coming to a close. Time will tell us if they can recapture their mojo of 2006 and make another championship run, or if too many dominoes already have fallen.

Reading the signs, and studying recent history, it's tough to like the Colts' chances. The storm clouds continue to gather in Indy, but the reign may almost be over.

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