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Colts, Pats showing vulnerable sides

The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots suddenly both are looking more like first-round playoff losers than Super Bowl teams.

The one glaring weakness on each team is getting worse by the week.

The Colts' defense is dying due to injury. The loss of starting safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss has been a huge blow to the run defense. Good safeties are key to the run fits in the Cover Two scheme. Doss tore up his knee in the sixth game. Sanders has played only four games due to an arthroscopic procedure in his knee. Add to that the fact the Colts lost two starting defensive tackles -- Corey Simon and Montae Reagor -- to injury and you have a run defense of horrendous proportions.

Indy is allowing 5.45 yards a carry, which is by far the worst since the merger in 1970 and the fourth worst in NFL history. You have to go way back to find those three worse teams -- the '34 Cincinnati Reds (6.4), the '50 New York Yankees (5.63) and the '50 Colts (5.56).

The Colts are allowing a league-worst 176.5 yards rushing a game, but there's no chance they will break the record for rush yards allowed in a season. The holder of that dubious mark? The 1978 Buffalo Bills, who allowed 3,228 yards, or 201.3 a game.

If Sanders could come back it would give the Colts a ray of hope. He was a monster in Indy's road win at New England this year. But he's still limping around the Indy locker room and showing no signs of becoming 100 percent. He has played just one of the last five games.

New England, meanwhile, saw its lack of production at wide receiver exposed by Miami last week.

The Patriots refused to pay both of Tom Brady's top two receivers in the offseason. They let David Givens go in free agency and traded Deion Branch in a contract dispute despite the fact they entered the offseason $20 million under the salary cap and rolling in revenue.

They had plenty of other options in the offseason via free agency or trade. Receivers available included: Javon Walker, Keyshawn Johnson, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Lloyd, Isaac Bruce, Antonio Bryant, Nate Burleson, Joe Jurevicius, Ashley Lelie, Brian Finneran and Donte Stallworth.

Instead the Pats drafted Chad Jackson in the second round (he could be good), then signed free-agent Reche Caldwell, added Jabar Gaffney as a street free agent and traded for underachieving Doug Gabriel. Caldwell is average, Gaffney is well below average and Gabriel was cut last week. That leaves Brady currently with just three healthy wideouts -- Caldwell, Gaffney and Troy Brown.

The Colts and Pats should be very worried if they draw a wild-card team like Jacksonville or Cincinnati in the playoffs.

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Cowher's future

For the first time, Steelers coach Bill Cowher admitted that he must decide soon after the season whether to continue to coach the Steelers or retire to his new home in Raleigh, N.C. Asked in a media conference call last week if he would step down at the end of the year, Cowher said: "There will be something at the end of the year. I'll sit back and put a lot of thought into it and make a decision accordingly. Right now my focus is purely on trying to find a way to win these last three games and see where that takes us."

Speculation on his future with the Steelers began after it became public in March that he and his wife, Kaye, had purchased a $2.5 million home in Raleigh. Kaye and their youngest daughter, Lindsay, have since moved to Raleigh. Lindsay is a sophomore in high school there. Bill Cowher visited them this past weekend after the Steelers played on Thursday night. It's at least the third time he has visited Raleigh during this season.

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Pat's big year

If there's any justice, ex-Bill Pat Williams will make his first Pro Bowl this year. If it doesn't happen this year, it may never happen, since Williams is 34.

The Vikings' No. 1-ranked run defense is on a remarkable pace after limiting Detroit to minus-3 rushing yards last week.

If they hold their final three opponents -- the Jets, Packers and Rams -- to a combined 51 rushing yards, the Vikings would finish the regular season with the lowest average of rushing yards allowed per game in league history.

The NFL record stands at 47.18 yards per game, set by the undefeated 1942 Chicago Bears in an 11-game season. Through 13 games this year, the Vikings are allowing 54 yards. The record since the merger was set by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who allowed 60.6 yards a game.

It's a stretch to think the Vikes could hold three teams to a total of 51 yards. However, the Vikes already have had four games this year in which they've held foes to fewer than 17 yards.

"We're just not worried about that," Williams said. "We'll worry about that stuff later. Our main goal every week is to smash the run."

Despite the great run defense, the Vikes are just 6-7. The reason? They have a poor pass rush and they don't have enough offensive weapons in the passing game. They're 27th in passing yards allowed, and the offense is 22nd in scoring.

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Shotgun in Denver?

Broncos rookie QB Jay Cutler has looked much more comfortable in the shotgun, spread offense. Denver is weighing using it more today at Arizona. In the original West Coast offense, the shotgun was not part of the scheme.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan joked about the lengths Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young would go to stay out of the spread look when Shanahan was an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers.

Shanahan: "Steve Young and Joe Montana, I've said, I think they dropped the snaps on purpose in the shotgun so they wouldn't have to do it any more because they liked the timing under center. They liked the five-step drop, they just felt comfortable in that look. But you're always weighing what you think is going to work and what will keep your quarterback from taking unnecessary hits. You don't want to get your guy killed."

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Onside kicks

*The big concern in Denver is the pass rush. They can't rush the passer with four and don't get there when they blitz. They have five sacks in the last four games combined.

*Long-time Houston columnist John McClain says the Texans' loss to the Titans has left the city in a funk he hasn't seen since the Buffalo playoff loss in January 1993. Almost all Houston fans wanted the Texans to draft Houston native Vince Young and dump David Carr, but they didn't listen.

*Feb. 4, 2007, has long been circled on the calendar in Marty Schottenheimer's house. Besides being the date for Super Bowl XLI, it's the 40th wedding anniversary of Marty and his wife, Pat. "Pat said if we get there, she'd give me a pass," says Schottenheimer, the Chargers' head coach who was a member of the Bills when he got married.

*Another former Bills coach, Joe Collier, lost his wife, Shirley, to a heart attack recently. Collier's son, Joel, is an assistant under Bill Belichick in New England.

*Boston College has been granted permission to interview Giants quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride, the former Bills coordinator, for its head coaching position.

*Three and a half months after the Eagles traded for him, wide receiver Donte Stallworth still is living out of a suitcase in a Philadelphia hotel. Stallworth is in the final year of his contract and didn't see the sense in looking for more permanent digs. He has 34 catches and five TDs. Any receiver who thinks about leaving Andy Reid's pass-happy offense should have his head examined (see Terrell Owens).

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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