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Saints, Colts Set to Kick Off NFL Season

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Saints, Colts Set to Kick Off NFL Season

By MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning lifts the Vince Lombardi ...

INDIANAPOLIS - Fans are eagerly anticipating the unfurling of the Indianapolis Colts' first championship banner, while downtown lightposts are covered in decorative signs promoting Thursday night's season opener against the New Orleans Saints.

"I think we're all excited," Peyton 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."

The signs of a new football season are popping up all over the city. 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 Saints' receiver Marques Colston.

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. Indianapolis 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. Indianapolis 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 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."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

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Manning, Colts Rout Saints 41-10

By DAVE GOLDBERG, AP Football Writer

br-53164.jpg Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, right, catches a ...

INDIANAPOLIS - It took the Indianapolis Colts one half to shake off their post-Super Bowl hangover. Then Peyton Manning and friends came alive to beat New Orleans 41-10 Thursday night in the NFL's opener, running away in the final 30 minutes with a championship-caliber performance.

Playing against his hometown team, Manning had three TD passes, two to Reggie Wayne and another to Marvin Harrison. Joseph Addai ran for 118 yards on 23 carries and a super-quick defense with four new starters shut down Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and the explosive New Orleans offense.

The game was tied 10-10 after a sloppy first half.

But Manning, who finished 18-of-30 for 288 yards, led two quick TD drives in the first 8:49 of the second half as the Colts put up 24 points in 20 minutes after intermission. On the first drive, Manning hit Harrison for 42 yards to set up a 2-yard TD run by Addai. Then the Super Bowl MVP came right back to throw a 28-yard TD pass to Wayne.

"NFL games are 60 minutes long. We were a little out of synch in the first half," coach Tony Dungy said. "They played us defensively a little different than we thought. We knew we had to run the ball a little more."

Another major player _ for both sides _ was New Orleans cornerback Jason David, who started for the Colts in their Super Bowl win over Chicago, then left as a free agent. He was victimized by Harrison on a 27-yard TD pass in the first half and again by Wayne on both his scores, the second a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter.

But David also produced the Saints' only TD, stripping Wayne after a second-quarter completion, picking up the ball and returning it 55 yards for the score.

"We don't do that," Manning said when asked if he deliberately went at David. "We had the right calls at the right time. With Marvin and Reggie, you're always going to throw it to those guys. If you have a good day, they say you're picking on one guy. We really don't do that.

David said he had to get used to a new scheme in New Orleans but didn't have any excuses.

"Anytime you come back and play a team you used to play for, you want to play your best game," he said. "I didn't play my best game tonight.All the plays you saw tonight ... that's on me. There's nobody else to blame but me."

Wayne finished with seven catches for 115 yards.

The game finally put the focus back on football after an offseason dominated by player discipline problems and long suspensions, most notably involving Michael Vick and Adam "Pacman" Jones. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the game, said beforehand, "I think we're ready now to get the focus back on football."

It took a little while before Manning got the Colts' offense focused.

Manning was just 8-of-17 for 101 yards in the first half, 66 of those yards on two completions: the 27-yard TD to Harrison, plus 39 on a throw to Dallas Clark that set up Adam Vinatieri's 33-yard field goal that tied the game at 10.

But the Saints, who reached the NFC title game last season before losing to Chicago, never could get their potent offense going.

They had just 112 total yards in the first half, and Bush and Deuce McAllister each had just 21 yards rushing before intermission against a made-over Indianapolis defense. That unit included undrafted rookie Ed Johnson at defensive tackle in place of Anthony McFarland, out for the season with a knee injury.

Both finished with just 38 yards, Bush on 12 carries and McAllister on 10. Brees was 27-of-40 for 183 yards and two interceptions.

The only score by the New Orleans offense was a 34-yard field goal by Olindo Mare in the second quarter after a nine-play, 36-yard drive. From the middle of that quarter until the middle of the fourth, the Saints ran just one play in Indianapolis territory and that was for a 2-yard loss.

Indy linebacker Freddy Keiaho, replacing departed free agent Cato June, was outstanding.

In the second quarter, he drove through a blocker, carrying him into Bush and dropping the runner for a 5-yard loss. In the third quarter, he picked off a pass that led to a 33-yard field goal by Vinatieri that made it 27-10 in the first minute of the final quarter.

The Colts took a 7-0 lead on the Manning-to-Harrison TD in the first quarter. David's play tied the game, and Mare's field goal put the Saints up 10-7. That lasted until the late drive keyed by the Manning-Clark hookup.

Then the Colts took over completely in the second half.

The Manning-Wayne 45-yarder made it 34-10 five minutes into the fourth quarter and Matt Giordano's 83-yard interception return closed the scoring.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

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