Colts think tougher practices have them ready, not rusty, to face Ravens

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INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Colts felt like they spent last week at boot camp.
Four-time MVP Peyton Manning tested himself against his own defence, the tempo was quick and the intensity increased. To first-year coach Jim Caldwell, this is how you use a bye week to get ready - not rusty - for the playoffs.
"It really got the competitive juices flowing," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "The only difference between a game and a hard practice for the defence is the finishing of a tackle. We are going full speed. We are running and we are fighting."
Worried Colts fans couldn't seek a better endorsement for change, though they'll certainly withhold judgment about the effectiveness of Caldwell's new tactics until seeing results.
The annual debate over Indy's playoff preparation has generated national attention this year because of the team's decision to rest starters and focus on the post-season rather than playing for a perfect season.
The storylines are familiar to local fans.
Since 1999, the Colts are 0-3 in the playoffs after earning first-round byes. Their next chance comes Saturday night against Baltimore in the first playoff game held at the two-year-old Lucas Oil Stadium.
Critics contend Indy's post-season failures are the result of long breaks late in the season, which got the team's timing offence out of sync. Rustiness.
They point to 2005, when the Colts played their starters sparingly over the last two weeks of the regular season and then lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh 21-18. They point to 2007, when Indy went nearly three weeks without a meaningful game and then lost 28-24 to San Diego. And they cite 2006, when the Colts won the regular-season finale to earn the No. 3 seed, and then won four straight in the post-season to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
Those inside the Colts' complex believe injuries - and tragedy - provide better explanations for the failures.
In 1999, linebacker Cornelius Bennett went down with a knee injury in the regular-season finale at Buffalo and missed the divisional-round game against Tennessee. The Titans won 19-16.
In 2007, Indy failed to put much pressure on San Diego's quarterbacks because it had lost Freeney with a season-ending foot injury in November. Team president Bill Polian told radio listeners last month that the shocking death of Tony Dungy's son, James, in December 2005 hurt the Colts' chances that year, too - more than people realized.
"I can tell you that that really took a big toll on us," Polian said five weeks ago. "How much? I don't know, but certainly a heck of a lot more than not playing guys."
So when the Colts (14-2) locked up the AFC's top seed in mid-December, Polian refused to take any additional risks.
Players, some of whom were disappointed they got yanked against the Jets, understand the strategy. This year, they've had their longest break between meaningful games yet, 29 days.
Yet they don't believe in the rust theory.
"It's a whole different year. It's a different feel," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "We don't have a crystal ball, can't rewind time, don't have a time machine. The only thing we can do is focus on the task at hand."
Clearly, though, Caldwell has changed up things.
He played the starters until midway through the third quarter against the New York Jets on Dec. 27, and kept the Colts' offence on the field at Buffalo until it scored a touchdown in the finale. Those were longer cameo appearances than Dungy traditionally gave his teams.
Caldwell, players say, also has done a better job keeping them fresh throughout the season. Last week, Caldwell changed the script again, turning the focus back to fundamentals and a sharp mentality to keep things competitive. On Wednesday, all 22 players on the injury report participated in practice.
"We have a period, even today, that we'll go some ones versus ones," Caldwell said Tuesday. "But last week we did a lot. We were able to get a lot of work done, maybe the three best practices we've had in a long time."
Will the changes be enough to avoid another early exit?
Maybe.
But one thing the Colts insist is not up for debate is that they are not rusty this year. They are healthy, rested, ready and clicking.
"Obviously, we hope things are different. I think we've done a great job up to this point keeping guys as healthy as possible, so hopefully we'll be flying around," Freeney said. "There is no better offence than our offence, in my mind. Going against our offence will prepare us for any other offence that we play. If we're able to stop our offence, we should be in a lot better shape going against anybody else."

Organizations: Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets

Geographic location: INDIANAPOLIS, San Diego, Buffalo Baltimore Lucas Oil Stadium Tennessee

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