Preview: New Orleans Saints at Indianapolis Colts CINCINNATI (AP) -Drew Brees needed only six on-target passes to show that he's ready - and the cincinnati bengals' defense isn't.
Peyton Manning was finally able to lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title last season. Drew Brees would like the same for himself and the event, 'New Orleans Saints|~Team');">New Orleans Saints this year.
The 2007 NFL season opens Thursday night as Manning and the Colts begin defense of their title when they host the Saints in a matchup of teams with the potential to meet again in February.
After winning 12 or more games in four straight seasons and reaching the AFC title game in 2003, Manning and the Colts finally claimed a Super Bowl championship by beating the Chicago Bears 29-17 last February in Miami. It was the Colts' second title in franchise history and first since moving to Indianapolis in 1984.
It also - at least for the time being - quieted Manning's critics who felt the future Hall of Famer was unable to lead his team to a title.
Manning, who completed 65 percent of his passes for 4,397 yards, 31 touchdowns and a career-low nine interceptions during the 2006 regular season, was 25-for-38 for 247 yards with a touchdown and an interception to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
Though some pressure is off, Manning might have an even tougher task as the Colts look to become the ninth team to win consecutive Super Bowls.
With four starters gone via free agency and three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn retired, Indianapolis is taking a back seat to New England and San Diego as the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLII in Arizona on Feb. 3, 2008.
"It's uncharted territory for most of us," said Manning, who was 20-of-25 for 314 yards and a career-high six touchdowns in a 55-21 win over New Orleans on Sept. 28, 2003, in the teams' most recent meeting. "All we really know how to do is to work hard and get on the same page. That's all we've done, that's all I've ever known."
New Orleans, meanwhile, has become one of the favorites in the NFC to reach its first Super Bowl after an improbable and emotional run in 2006 ended with a 39-14 loss at Chicago in the conference championship game.
Coming off a 3-13 season in 2005 and the lingering effects Hurricane Katrina left on the Gulf Coast area, New Orleans finished 10-6, won the NFC South title and captivated not only a city, but a nation.
Behind Brees, the runner-up to San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson for the NFL MVP, New Orleans led the league in total offensive yards (6,387), passing yards (4,503) and scored a franchise-best 416 points.
"I still feel like we've only scratched the surface as an offense," said Brees, who in his first year with the Saints led the league in passing with a career-high 4,418 yards. "We've got a lot of weapons and we've got a lot of balls to be spread around. I'm excited about the possibilities and the opportunity we have."
The Saints will get that opportunity against an Indianapolis defense with two new starters at cornerback - Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden - to replace Nick Harper and Jason David (now in New Orleans), who were lost in free agency.
Also playing elsewhere is defensive tackle Corey Simon and linebacker Monte Reagor, while defensive tackle Anthony McFarland was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders appears healthy after missing 12 games in 2007 because of injuries and 6-foot-2, 296-pound rookie Ed Johnson is slated to replace McFarland up front.
"I think we are a little faster in some areas and I think we're playing faster," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "We look to be more physical, which is a good thing."
The Colts biggest concern last season was their inability to stop the run and it could be the same in 2007, but there appears to be improvement.
Indianapolis allowed 5.3 yards per carry and was last in the league against the run in 2006, but yielded 4.1 yards in the playoffs and 3.2 during the preseason.
While the defense looks to improve, Pro Bowl receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne - who combined for 181 receptions and 21 TDs last season - will help Manning.
Second-year running back Joseph Addai, who rushed for 1,081 yards on 226 carries in 2006 in an offense that averaged 26.7 points and recorded 4,308 passing yards - second to New Orleans - has a season to build on.
Manning is also confident rookie Tony Ugoh will play well in Glenn's place.
Though the Saints don't have the track record of the Colts' offense, they have the potential to be just as potent for years to come.
In addition to Brees, who threw for 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and led the team to a 6-2 road record, perennial 1,000-yard rusher Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush work well in the backfield.
McAllister rushed for 1,057 yards and 10 TDs in 2006, and Bush finished an impressive rookie season with a team-leading 88 catches for 742 yards, while rushing for 565 yards on 155 carries.
Receiver Marques Colston is no longer the little-known talent he was during his rookie season when he caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns.
Defensively, the Saints finished second in the league by allowing 232.6 yards per game and could improve with the additions of David and linebacker Brian Simmons through free agency.
It all leaves the Saints with some lofty expectations.
"What has happened in previous years isn't necessarily a predictor of what will happen this season," said Saints coach Sean Payton, the 2006 NFL Coach of the Year. "I feel comfortable that this team understands it's a different season. The goal that we set out for last year we fell short of, in regards to playing for a championship. Yet, those are the right types of goals that you set. I think our players understand that and will be able to handle that."
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