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IN THE bowels of what felt like a haunted house, at a defining moment for a city, a team and a franchise quarterback, the Indianapolis Colts looked to one man for salvation. As the players sat glumly in their RCA Dome locker room at halftime of the AFC Championship Game, reeling from a first half in which they'd fallen behind 21--6 to the New England Patriots, coach Tony Dungy strode among them, delivering a message that even the team's biggest star had trouble swallowing. "I'm telling you, this is our game," Dungy proclaimed, fixing his eyes on quarterback Peyton Manning, whose playoff struggles mirrored Dungy's own. "It's our time."
Dungy had uttered the same words the previous night as the team gathered at its downtown Indianapolis hotel, but now his optimism seemed unfounded. Manning, who up to now might as well have had can't win the big one tattooed on his forehead, was still obsessing over the 39-yard interception for a touchdown he'd served up to cornerback Asante Samuel, which had put the Patriots up 21--3 less than six minutes into the second quarter. It's our time? Had these words come from anyone other than Dungy, Manning would have tuned him out. "But Tony is one calm customer, no matter what the circumstance," the Pro Bowl quarterback said later, "and he has a way of making you believe. We're stressed out, and he's parading back and forth telling us we're going to win. That rubs off on the younger players, even the older players. It made a difference."
To credit a coach's demeanor for inspiring the biggest comeback ever in a conference championship game and a historic trip to Super Bowl XLI would be overly simplistic, for Indy's thrilling, 38--34 victory required every bit of resourcefulness that this long-tormented team could muster. But it's true that everything the 51-year-old Dungy did at halftime, from his shrewd strategic adjustments to the perspective he provided, steeled a group of men who revere him at a time when abject panic was a couple of bad plays away. In return, with 30 transcendent minutes of football, the Colts claimed a triumph steeped in significance: They vanquished their archnemesis, a team that had twice humbled them in the postseason and won three of the last five Super Bowls; Manning vaulted closer to the realm of the Pats' Tom Brady, his chief rival for supremacy at the sport's most glamorous position; and the franchise, which moved from Baltimore to title-starved Indy in 1984, earned its first Super Bowl berth in 36 years.
Oh, and this: The Ultimate Game just got a double dose of overdue diversity. When the Colts meet the Chicago Bears at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Feb. 4, Dungy and Lovie Smith, his close friend and former assistant, will make history as the first African-American head coaches to stand on a Super Bowl sideline. Dungy, a man who appreciates the milestone's importance, had smiled earlier in the day as he watched the Bears take an 18-point lead over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game. Heading to the field for pregame warmups shortly afterward, he thought, Lovie's done it; now I've got to do my part. Dungy figured an 18-point deficit was insurmountable--a notion, oddly enough, that his Colts would dispel a few hours later.
In a league of ultracompetitive jockeying and ulterior motives, few figures are as widely admired as Dungy, who despite being one of the most successful coaches of the postmerger era (a 114--62 regular-season record) had lost eight of 13 playoff games before Indy entered this postseason as a No. 3 seed. After reviving the once-pathetic Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an impressive six-season run as their coach, Dungy was fired before the 2002 season, then saw his replacement, Jon Gruden, lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl victory. "[Dungy] built that team, and watching it win after he was gone had to hurt," Colts wideout Reggie Wayne had said the Thursday night before the AFC title game while he and 10 Indy defenders had dined at an Indianapolis steak house. "We want to make up for that, and we know that this can be the first time an African-American coach is in the Super Bowl. We want to do that for him so bad, because he's like a father figure."
The players also are painfully aware of what the affable, deeply religious Dungy went through last season: In December 2005, Tony and wife Lauren's son James committed suicide at age 18. Tony missed the second-to-last regular-season game but returned after a weeklong absence. In its playoff opener top-seeded Indianapolis looked understandably distracted and suffered a 21--18 upset to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
A little more than a year later Indy seemed to be replaying the Pittsburgh game, as the fourth-seeded Patriots caught the Colts napping in Naptown. New England took a 7--0 first-quarter lead when Patriots guard Logan Mankins dived on the ball in the end zone after Brady and Laurence Maroney had mishandled an exchange from the Colts' four-yard line. (The football gods would return the favor early in the fourth quarter on a strangely similar play that bounced Indy's way, with center Jeff Saturday getting the star turn.) A seven-yard run by Corey Dillon put New England up 14--3, and two plays later Samuel jumped a sideline pass from Manning to wideout Marvin Harrison that hit the mute button on 57,433 fans. The Colts drove to the New England eight late in the half but settled for ex-Pats kicker Adam Vinatieri's second field goal.
The deficit called for adjustments, and Dungy and his assistants delivered. New England coach Bill Belichick, as is his custom, had devised a new wrinkle to throw at Manning, benching pass-rushing linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, shifting veteran inside backer Mike Vrabel to Banta-Cain's outside spot and giving third-year linebacker Eric Alexander his first career start. The move put Alexander, who is speedier than Vrabel, on tight end Dallas Clark and allowed the Patriots to disguise some of their zone coverages with man-to-man looks--a ploy that helped Samuel bait Manning into throwing the interception.
But Dungy proved that his mind is as robust as his heart. "Belichick gets all the credit for training smart football players," says San Francisco 49ers backup QB Trent Dilfer, who played for Dungy in Tampa, "but Tony teaches football IQ as well as anybody in the NFL." Dungy's first move at halftime was to tweak Indy's predictable deployment of its Pro Bowl wideouts, which is Harrison on the right and Wayne on the left. Instead, the Colts sent Wayne into the slot, and third wideout Aaron Moorehead or Clark took his place on the outside. This, said receivers coach Clyde Christensen, forced the Patriots out of their base 3--4 and into a nickel package that used a Cover Two scheme. With the corners playing press coverage, Clark and Wayne could exploit openings in the middle of the field.
Dungy also flashed back to one of his team's crushing losses to New England: a 38--34 home defeat in '03, when Indy trailed 31--10 before mounting a comeback that fell a yard short. "This gap is easier to close," Dungy told his players at the half. "We get the ball first, and if we score a touchdown on our first drive, we're only one score down."