Saints, Colts finally ready to play some meaningful games

Published 4:46 pm Thursday, September 6, 2007

The signs of a new football season are popping up all over Indianapolis.

Peyton Manning’s mean-looking expression is plastered next to a stern-looking Reggie Bush on area billboards. Another shows Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne next to a mug shot of New Orleans receiver Marques Colston.

Fans are eagerly anticipating the unfurling of Indy’s first championship banner while downtown lightposts are covered in decorative signs promoting Thursday night’s season opener.

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It must be time for the Colts to start defending their Super Bowl title.

“I think we’re all excited,” Manning said. “You know it’s only the third time in my 10 years that we’ve played at home for the season opener, so it’s going to be exciting for the fans and for us.”

New Orleans hopes the inclusion in such a high-profile game indicates something else — that it’s ready to play on the big stage.

Long one of the NFL’s laughingstock franchises, the Saints won just their second playoff game in franchise history eight months ago before losing at Chicago in the NFC title game.

Now, two years after being forced out of their home stadium by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints enter 2007 with the highest expectations in team history. Some are already predicting a conference title and contend the NFL opener may actually be a Super Bowl preview, something Saints coach Sean Payton calls premature.

“We talk about our goals and expectations, but I think our players understand that nothing’s promised from last season to this year,” he said. “Our goal is to become a contender every season like Indy, Philly and a number of other teams.”

But with each new season comes new hope, and in the case of most Super Bowl winners new lineups and new challenges.

Indy lost three starters in free agency — linebacker Cato June and cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper — and another, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp. A fifth, left tackle Tarik Glenn, retired.

Then there’s the unforgiving schedule.

Indy plays five prime-time games this year and faces most of the trendy favorites to dethrone them — New England, San Diego and Denver in the AFC, and, of course, New Orleans in the NFC.

“I’m looking forward to it — the opportunity to open up against the Super Bowl champion … and show we’re a good team, too,” Saints tackle Jammal Brown said.

While Thursday’s game should be a test for the teams, fans may appreciate the entertainment value more.

Both offenses finished among the league’s top three last season and have a handful of the league’s most prominent names.

Manning, the Super Bowl MVP, and Drew Brees, a Heisman Trophy contender at nearby Purdue, started at quarterback for their respective conferences in the Pro Bowl. Bush was the league’s most publicized rookie back last year while the Colts’ Joseph Addai was the most productive.

Wayne and record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison, both Pro Bowlers, will be countered by the Saints’ Colston, perhaps last year’s biggest surprise rookie.

So the difference Thursday may be defense, an area in which both teams struggled in 2006.

The Colts finished last in the NFL against the run, while the Saints were in the bottom third of the league against the pass. That’s one reason the Saints signed David, who spent three years working against Wayne and Harrison in practice.

“They do a great job of just doing their job, really,” David said of the Colts’ top receivers. “It also doesn’t hurt having one of the best quarterbacks in the league throwing the ball to you in Peyton Manning. They all work together and they’re a great team.”

The Colts are relying on younger players to fill the voids. Marlin Jackson, a former first-round pick, replaces David while Kelvin Hayden steps in for Harper. Second-year linebacker Freddy Keiaho takes over for June, and undrafted rookie Ed Johnson replaces McFarland.

So far, Colts coach Tony Dungy has seen encouraging signs.

“We just look to be more physical with some guys in the secondary, some linebackers, even some of the linemen,” he said.

But, as the billboards suggest, Thursday night will likely be all about the offense.

And both teams are eager to show the rest of the NFL what they’re capable of doing this season.

“I think we’ve done a good job in previous seasons of the putting what happened last year behind us, and that’s what we have to do again,” Manning said. “I’m just excited to get out there and play, hit someone different, play in a game where the score counts.”