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COLTS' DEFENSIVE FLAWS MAY DRIVE MANNING TO TD MARK

The figure is 20 years old and stands way out in the stratosphere of the NFL record book.

Dan Marino's record of 48 touchdown passes in one season rarely has been threatened since it was set in 1984. Marino came close again, with 46 in 1986. Kurt Warner put up 41 in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams. No one else has hit 40.

The Colts' Peyton Manning has 22 TD strikes in seven games, a pace that would give him 50 for the season.

What makes Manning such a threat is not just that he has the capability to do it. It's that he might need to do it.

As they say in Indianapolis, every game he's battling two defenses -- the opponent's and his own. After being boiled in oil by Kansas City last week, the Colts' defense ranks 29th or worse in six significant defensive categories: points, total yards, passing yards, yards per play, first downs and third-down efficiency.

They're allowing 25.4 points a game. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 69.7 percent of their passes and have compiled a 100.4 rating, which would rank sixth among individuals. The pass defense has allowed 26 completions of at least 20 yards, up from 11 at the same point a year ago.

Inexperience and injuries are killing the Colts' secondary. Indy will start its sixth defensive backfield combination in eight games Monday night when the high-scoring Minnesota Vikings visit the RCA Dome. Starting corner Donald Strickland, who was suspect to begin with, is out for the year with a shoulder injury. The other starting corner, 32-year-old Nick Harper, is no shut-down guy. Strong safety Mike Doss has missed 3 1/2 games. He probably will sit out Monday and be replaced by rookie second-round pick Bob Sanders, who sat out all of training camp in a contract dispute. Jason David, a rookie fourth-round pick, was forced to start three games and will be a green No. 3 corner against the Vikings.

Despite two straight losses, the Colts (4-3) still look like a playoff team. But it's hard to see them making it through the AFC playoffs with this defense.

Manning, who leads the NFL with a 117.4 passer rating, is going to have to keep the heat on Marino's mark. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper has 20 TD strikes and is on pace for 45 TDs. The Vikes' defense has not been great, either. However, at least Minnesota has some veteran players in the defensive backfield on which it can rely.

Seau Goodbye

We'll see if the Dolphins, after getting blown out by the Jets, find extra motivation today from an emotional farewell they received last week from linebacker Junior Seau. In what may have been the weak-side linebacker's farewell speech, Seau addressed teammates before flying to California for season-ending surgery on a torn pectoral muscle.

"I shared how hard it was going to be and how to persevere during these times," said Seau, who wiped away tears after recounting the meeting. "There's going to be a lot of judgments made on a lot of individuals, more so than they've had in the past. The only way through it is by loving the game. You've got to be strong and care for the person near to you. They've got to come together and stay together."

Seau will be 36 in January and is slated to make $3.5 million next season. Eddie Moore, a second-round pick in 2003, takes over for Seau.

Pats trouble

It's not uncommon for teams that go on a long winning streak to follow up a streak-breaking defeat with another loss. It takes so much grinding to keep the streak going that there's a letdown after it finally ends. This is the challenge the Pats' Bill Belichick faces with his club today in St. Louis.

On top of that, the Pats are playing the Rams without both starting cornerbacks. The Pats are prime for loss No. 2. After facing the Bills next week, the Pats play at Kansas City on a Monday night. The door is open for the Jets to take the lead in the AFC East.

Stirring Browns

Browns coach Butch Davis always makes a lineup change during his team's bye week. This year he replaced FS Earl Little -- one of three Browns left from their 1999 expansion team -- with Chris Crocker, a second-year third-round pick from Marshall. Through seven games, the Browns had given up 21 pass plays of 20 or more yards. A year ago, they gave up eight. Little did not react well to the demotion. He showed up in the locker room armed with coaches' grade sheets to argue his case that he's playing well.

"The evidence is right here," Little said.

Quotable

Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael said he wants to join the U.S. space program. "I want to go to the moon," McMichael said, in all seriousness. "There aren't too many brothers up there."

Player to watch

Cowboys TE Jason Witten, No. 82.

Data: 6-5, 257. Drafted third round in 2003.

Scouting report: Witten has 39 catches for 391 yards, which ranks fourth in the NFL among tight ends. He's eighth in the NFC in catches. He's on pace to be the first tight end to lead the Cowboys in receptions since Doug Cosbie in 1984. He was switched from defensive end to tight end early in his freshman year at Tennessee. After standout sophomore and junior years, he entered the draft a year early. He's not as quick and nimble as ex-Cowboy Jay Novacek. But he's bigger and is a powerful runner after the catch. In practice, he's a whipping boy of coach Bill Parcells, who tends to be toughest on his most talented players.

Onside kicks

Donovan McNabb is 50-21 (.704) as a starter. It took him 71 games to get to 50 wins, the fourth fastest in history since the merger in 1970. Oakland's Ken Stabler did it in 62 games, Dallas' Danny White in 69 and Chicago's Jim McMahon in 70.

The past two weeks, the Bucs have faced St. Louis and Chicago, both of which run offensive systems similar to that of Kansas City. Let's see if it helps them contain Priest Holmes & Co. today.

Kerry Collins' 11 interceptions are tied for the NFL high, and he has lost all five of his starts for the Raiders since replacing Rich Gannon.

Jeff George, 36, is dying to return to the NFL and has been keeping in touch with Chicago about a possible comeback. George has been out of work for two seasons.

In their first five games, the Texans were 2-3 and allowed 131.4 yards rushing and a 4.8 average, with three touchdowns. In their last two victories, they've allowed 70 yards, a 4.1 average and no touchdowns.

The Steelers' 34-20 victory over New England was the highest-rated national game of the season. The game on CBS drew a 15.3 rating and a 28 share. NFL ratings on CBS overall are up 3 percent this year.

Jimmy Sexton, agent for numerous coaches including Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, was at the last Dolphins game.

The Redskins are the only team yet to score 20 points.
e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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