Five pressing issues facing the Indianapolis Colts

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Even with most of them back, the Colts could improve their interception totals: they tied for 30th with Denver with just 10 pickoffs in 2010.

4. Are the Colts vulnerable enough to lose their stranglehold on the AFC South?

Indy had to work hard late last season to outlast Jacksonville and win its seventh AFC South title before losing the wild-card playoff game to the New York Jets, two signs that the conference’s power balance is shifting.

But within the division, the Colts still have significant edges over the Jaguars, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. With uncertainty over how the league will look when the lockout ends, it’s a reach to imagine any of them suddenly emerging as a serious challenger; and as long as Manning is healthy and continues working everybody into the game plan as he did last season, that puts Indianapolis a step ahead.

Manning threw for 4,700 yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while posting a 92.1 rating in 2010. That’s stellar for any quarterback, more so for a 14-year veteran who turned 35 in March. Barring injury or a drastic falloff — keep in mind, he started 16 games for the 13th consecutive season in 2011 — he and the Colts remain the standard-bearers in this division until someone knocks them down.

5. Who is Curtis Painter, and why are Colts fans nervous?

Meet Manning’s backup, who hasn’t taken a snap since throwing just 28 passes (completing eight) after being drafted in the sixth round in 2009 out of Purdue. His debut was a day he’d rather forget, as he relieved Manning in the second half of a Week 16 game against the Jets and promptly lost a fumble, a lead and the Colts’ hopes for a perfect season.

He nonetheless stands ready in case something happens to the future Hall of Famer. Colts fans who boo him lustily mainly because he’s not Manning, might pray that they never see the day he plays but have to remember that nothing is a given and that every team needs a backup.

Which begs the question of what management will do when the lockout ends. Indy carried just two QBs last season and seemed more intent on protecting Manning in April by drafting Boston College OT Anthony Castonzo (6-7, 305 pounds) in the first round (22nd overall) and Villanova OG Ben Ijalana (6-4, 317 pounds) in the second.

The free-agent QB pool is includes Dennis Dixon (a restricted free agent who helped Pittsburgh to a 3-1 start last season with Charlie Batch during Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension), Tyler Thigpen and Kerry Collins. All have more experience than Painter and could be capable backups to the future Hall of Famer.

The Colts and their fans hope the club doesn’t have to go that route just yet.

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