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Colts aren't the easiest to get a read on

The good outweighs the bad in uneven AFC title game, after a streaky regular season. They are early seven-point Super Bowl favorites.

January 23, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — With just one NFL game remaining, people are still struggling to understand the Indianapolis Colts.

Is this the team that won its first nine games or lost four of its next six?

Is this one of the NFL's all-time worst run defenses or the one that shut down Larry Johnson and Jamal Lewis in consecutive playoff games?

Are these the bumblers who couldn't find the end zone in the first half of Sunday's AFC championship game, or the unstoppable scorchers who rang up 32 points on the Patriots in the second half -- more than New England had given up in a game all season?

Oddsmakers were certainly impressed; the Colts, fresh off their first victory in a conference title game since January 1971, are early seven-point favorites to beat Chicago in Super Bowl XLI.

In his news conference Monday, Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said the key to the 38-34 victory was his team didn't panic, even after falling behind by 18 in the second quarter.

"I couldn't be more proud of our team," he said. "That's obviously not easy to do the way we did it, falling behind to a team like New England that has so many veterans and is so experienced. To get down three scores is difficult. But we hung in there and kept our composure."

In the Colts' previous two postseason losses to the Patriots, both of which came in Foxborough, Mass., "we tried to make things happen a little too fast," Dungy said. Sunday "we just continued to play our game."

Instead of showering and leaving the RCA Dome after the game as he might normally do, Dungy said he waited around for a long time to "soak up the atmosphere." Because out-of-town friends and family members were waiting, though, he eventually packed up and left. He met them at a downtown restaurant that was kept open especially for them and stayed until 4 a.m.

Later Monday morning, he got a call from Chicago Coach Lovie Smith. Dungy gave Smith his first NFL job, hiring him as Tampa Bay's linebackers coach in 1996. After Smith was hired as coach of the Bears in 2004, he and Dungy had talked about the possibility they might one day meet in the Super Bowl.

Thrilling as that might be for them, Dungy called it tough to be facing a close friend and protege in the biggest game of their lives.

"I've been through it a couple times," he said. "I've been through it a couple times, with Herm [Edwards] in the playoffs twice. I've been through it with Denny [Green], when I was at Tampa and he was at Minnesota and we'd play twice a year.... But I think when you get to this point, it's going to be a win-win situation. Both he and I are going to do whatever we can to win, and we'll feel like the other guy had a great year anyway."

In the immediate aftermath of victory Sunday, Dungy joked that the Colts and Bears shouldn't have to go all the way to Miami to decide a champion but instead should meet in Fort Wayne, Ind., which is between Indianapolis and Chicago.

Whichever team wins, Dungy and Smith will be forever linked in NFL history as the first black head coaches to reach the Super Bowl. Asked whether he expects a day will come soon when that milestone becomes a common occurrence, Dungy said he does.

"I think we'll probably talk this subject to death in the next two weeks," he said. "So it will get to the point where we feel like we've heard it for 100 years.... But hopefully we're getting to that point where people realize if you hire the best person, they're going to do a good job, players are going to respond to good coaches whoever they are."

For now, Dungy seems determined to focus on the matchup. The Colts were good when they had to be against the Patriots, but there are several holes in need of patching. Kick and punt coverage was shoddy at times, and quarterback Peyton Manning has a bruised thumb on his throwing hand from striking it on the helmet of tackle Tarik Glenn. The thumb is discolored and sore, but X-rays Monday found no broken bones and he's expected to start in the Super Bowl.

"Everything I'm hearing is that it's going to be OK," Dungy said.

Dungy was most impressed by his players' ability to keep their cool. He attributed that to having players with experience in the do-or-die postseason.

"You can't afford lapses, and that's what happened to us in the past," he said. "You have a lapse for 10 minutes ... where we've made mistakes or haven't done things exactly right. You fall behind a little bit, and then you get into a panic mode because you know the gravity of the situation, and you try to come back a little too quickly.

"Thirty minutes is still a lot of time to score a lot of points."

For a team that's been half-on, half-off this season, it's plenty.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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