By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts have a hard time measuring the true impact made by safety Bob Sanders.
When healthy, he always seems to put up big numbers, deliver punishing hits, produce game-changing plays, and provide an inspirational lift for his defensive teammates.
Opponents, like New England, would rather avoid testing Sanders.
Yet the reigning defensive player of the year still finds ways to make a difference, just as he did in Sunday night's 18-15 victory.
"He just hits things fast and sees it fast, and that's one of the good things he can do from 10 or 11 yards deep," coach Tony Dungy said. "He can come and make tackles near the line of scrimmage."
Or plays downfield, like the game-sealing interception that he later described as a mistake because it cost the Colts 20 yards in field position.
Forgive Sanders for being too eager, but he wants to help Indy (4-4) turn things around.
Sanders had missed five straight games with ankle and knee injuries and had seen his teammates lose two straight. The Colts went into Sunday night fighting to stay in the playoff chase, facing their bitterest rival on national television, and Sanders wanted to prove to the football world that a couple of injuries weren't going to slow him down.
They didn't. Sanders still finished with eight tackles.
But his value to the Colts defense cannot be evaluated merely with numbers or highlight-making plays.
Sanders' position on the field often dictated whether New England would throw or run and his teammates took a cue from Sanders with their hardest hitting game of he season. They looked confident and played with passion, trademarks of Sanders' reckless style, and when Sanders celebrated by flexing his muscles, others followed suit.
The result: Indy produced its most disciplined defensive performances of the season.
"I think the guys feel good when he's out there," Dungy said. "They feel like he's going to make some things happen and that helps everybody relax. He's one of the guys that helps us play with energy, and it's kind of infectious out there, his hustle and his effort.
Sanders added another line to his checklist, too.
With both of Indy's starting cornerbacks, Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, out with injuries, Sanders became the secondary's steadying influence.
Things looked bleak when Jackson sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice last week, and Hayden, who was expected to return Sunday, missed practice late in the week with a hamstring injury. Backup cornerback Dante Hughes also missed the game after hurting an ankle, and that left only three healthy cornerbacks -- Tim Jennings, Keiwan Ratliff and Nick Graham -- to defend against the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Sanders made it work.
His ability to sometimes creep toward the line of scrimmage and other times drop into deep coverage, allowed Ratliff and Jennings to successfully prevent Moss from getting deep or Welker from gaining yards after the catch. The two combined for 13 catches but only 102 yards and no touchdowns.
It was easily the best performance of Jennings' three-year career in Indianapolis and a far cry from the game two weeks ago against Green Bay when Jennings was tagged for four penalties, all on Packers scoring drives.
"It's just the life of a cornerback," Dungy said. "You're out there, you're going to get thrown at, and you have to make some plays. He made a couple that really helped us and did some good things."
Ratliff's performance was a bigger surprise. The former Tampa Bay player had already been cut twice by the Colts this season and was re-signed Thursday, presumably for depth when Jackson went down.
With Hughes out all week and Hayden unable to practice Thursday or Friday, though, Ratliff suddenly was elevated to starter.
"It was a tough deal out there playing Moss quite a bit, but he's a smart guy," Dungy said of Ratliff. "He knows what we're doing and, under the circumstances, I thought he did real well."
Sanders wasn't expected to play the full game, either, but under these circumstances and in this big a game, nothing was going to keep Sanders down or out when the Colts needed his influence most before heading to his home state and a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"That's what we're all about, not giving up the big plays and playing fast, smart and gang tackling," Sanders said after the game. "For the most part, we did that. It definitely felt good. I felt like we played well, and this is something we can build on."