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Rags to respectability (and better?) for Colts; resurgent Seahawks

Only a week ago it was easy to lose perspective and get carried away by the young and surprising Indianapolis Colts, who were one of the big surprise teams in the National Football League, and actually held down first place in their division. Reality set in a bit with last Sunday's 27-3 thumping at the hands of Buffalo, but they're still tied with the Bills and Miami for the AFC East lead - and still in contention for a playoff berth.

Of course two of the Colts' seven victories were achieved with fill-in players during the midseason strike, but this nonetheless has been an encouraging campaign for a team that went 3-13 in 1986.

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The original thinking among the Indianapolis hierarchy was that it would take anywhere from three to five years to make this team a contender. Instead, coach Ron Meyer, who was hired last December with three games left on the schedule, has given the team a positive sense of direction in near record time. One of the reasons for Meyer's success is that he had been down this lonesome road before with the New England Patriots.

When Ron was named head coach of the Patriots in 1981, he inherited a team that had a reputation as one of the league's country club franchises. Players didn't break any rules exactly, because there weren't any rules left for them to break, but they didn't win much, either.

Things changed under Meyer. He showed the Patriots how to play as a team. He taught them how to win on the road. He got them into the playoffs, and had led them to a 5-3 record when differences with both his players and club management led to his being fired halfway through the 1984 season.

There was no doubt that Meyer had achieved results on the field, but his iron discipline triggered complaints from several players that he was too tough on them in practice. When he also angered the front office by dismissing defensive coordinator Rod Rust against management's wishes, the club decided to eat the rest of his contract and make a change, bringing in Raymond Berry.

When Indianapolis signed Meyer, nobody outside the city seemed the least bit interested - at least as far as the 1987 season was concerned. How much can a guy accomplish in his first full year with distressed merchandise? This, after all, was a team that had allowed its opponents to light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.

Meyer would also be working with two supermarket quarterbacks (Gary Hogeboom and Jack Trudeau) of the type available on almost any NFL shelf. It probably wasn't going to make a whole lot of difference who called the plays or threw the passes for the Colts.

But somehow Meyer pulled this team together, gave it a new look on defense, installed some pride, and said something about confidence being self-winding when you know you've got a chance to win. In a startling development, the Colts proceeded to win their last three games in 1986. And now in what is also a major surprise, they have allowed the fewest points of any team in their division so far this year.

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Offensively, the final building block was set in place six weeks ago when the Colts got Eric Dickerson in a trade. Dickerson is an exceptional talent who had been having contract problems with the Los Angeles Rams. Despite being held to 19 yards by Buffalo last Sunday, Eric is widely acknowledged as the league's best running back. He played his college ball at Southern Methodist under Meyer, so the two understand each other.

As for the division race, it's still so close that every one of the five teams retains a mathematical chance for the title, though Buffalo is the only one with its fate in its own hands. If the Bills win their last two games, they are division champions, since they would win any tiebreaker. If Buffalo loses once, however, the Colts (now 7-6) can take it by winning their final two contests. Furthermore, even if the Bills don't cooperate, a 9-6 record could conceivably net a wild-card playoff spot. Elsewhere in the NFL

Just when everybody had started to count out Seattle in the AFC West, the Seahawks played one of their best games of the season Sunday against the Denver Broncos, winning 28-21. That victory, coupled with Pittsburgh's 20-16 win over San Diego, has moved the Seahawks into a second-place tie with the Chargers. This weekend, Seattle plays host to the Chicago Bears, who will be trying to bounce back from Monday's 41-0 humiliation at the hands of the 49ers, while the Chargers host the Indianapolis Colts.

Quarterback John Elway's multiple talents are so important to Denver's success that he stands a good chance of being named the leagues's Most Valuable Player regardless of how the team fares. Even if the Broncos don't win their division title, or get knocked off partway through the playoffs, John will still get a ton of votes.

From former Detroit Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras, now a TV actor: ``I never graduated from the University of Iowa. I was only there for two terms - Truman's and Eisenhower's.''

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