Posted: Monday March 21, 2005 10:44AM; Updated: Monday March 21, 2005 7:26PM
Now about beating the Patriots ...
"We're going to have to go there again this year,'' Dungy said, referring to the schedule-maker's cruel trick. It'll be the fourth straight New England-Indy meeting in Foxboro (two in the playoffs). "And eventually we're going to have to get over that hump. But I look at it the way Chuck Noll used to look at big games: You never approach a season thinking there's only one opponent you've got to beat.
"We've played them twice during the regular season in the last two years with a chance to win at the end, and if we won, we'd have played them at home in the playoffs. Both times we're at the 1-yard line late in the game with a chance to score and win. Two years ago, in Indianapolis, they stopped us at the goal line, and we couldn't get in. Last year, in the Thursday night game at their place, we fumbled the ball and didn't get in. Now the question is: How do we win enough games to get back to that point this year?''
I said to him: "When Edgerrin James fumbled in the fourth quarter in that game last year, I thought, 'There goes home field for the Colts.'''
"I thought that right after the game,'' Dungy said. "For us to have won home field, we'd have had to win two more games than New England the rest of the way. And we knew New England was so good they'd probably win 12 or 13 games at least, so we'd have had to be perfect to avoid the prospect of playing them in Foxboro in the playoffs. It just didn't work out.''
The Colts don't expect to field a much different team this year, except perhaps with a healthier secondary than the beat-up group that played late last year. They've lost a good guard, Rick DeMulling, in free agency. They'll probably face some sort of job action by James, who's almost certain not to get a long-term deal from the Colts. If he stays one more year, he'll play for the franchise number, then likely move on as a free agent in '06. I'd guess James would boycott minicamps and training camps, a la Walter Jones and OrlandoPace, then report to play the season. Dungy won't be riled much. Nor will the team. He understands the business, and he'll make his team cool with it.
Dungy doesn't think New England's losses -- Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Ty Law --will change them much. The loss of Tedy Bruschi -- if the inspirational linebacker is forced to retire because of health problems -- wouldn't change Dungy's mind. "Losing Tedy would be a big factor because he's such a great player,'' said Dungy, "but they've developed the mindset that whoever they put in there is going to get the job done. And they've done it time after time.''
True, but the one thing New England would lose if Bruschi's gone is an incredibly instinctive playmaker who's as quick to seal a running hole as any linebacker in football. That's going to be a loss, folks. A big one.
The Colts simply have to perform better against the run. Allowing 4.6 yards a carry is absurd for a contender. But don't look for Dungy to rip apart his front seven. Look for him to tinker and add some backup bodies.
"What we have to do is build our depth to be a little better, through some signings and through the draft,'' he said. "We've been good enough both years to challenge New England. We've won 24 games in two years and haven't gotten a bye either year, which has to be some kind of record. Did Pittsburgh do much to close the gap? Well, they drafted a quarterback, but they were basically the same team besides that. We're not going to do much different. We're just going to try to play better.
"When I worked for Dennis Green, he used to tell the players, 'A dropped pass can cost you a championship. One play can cost you a championship.' That's the beauty of football: Every play's critical -- a play in September, a play in January. Last year proved that."
Which is why this sport is so compelling, even in languid weeks like this one.