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Shadows of 2005

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How will Dungy handle his team's "favored" role, and how will the team respond?
Well, here we are. It's been a month since the Colts have played a meaningful game, and even longer than that since they played a game against a top tier opponent. Now, the playoffs come to the RCA Dome, and with them the frantic, nervous excitement that comes with playoff time. It's funny, but the playoffs are both the best and worst for me. I get so worked up, so excitable, so shaky that I oftentimes don't watch whole quarters of a playoff game. So, when the playoffs start, I'm both excited and crapping my pants.

This year especially has me wearing extra Depends because of the eerie similarities to the dark 2005 season; I say dark because despite a 13-0 start, the #1 seed in the playoffs, and the beginnings of a great Colts defense the season is remembered mostly for a big playoff screw-up against the Steelers and the death of Tony Dungy's son, James. Thankfully this season, there has been no major tragedy (as far as we know) with the Colts. Hopefully, it stays that way. But despite winning the Super Bowl last season, the long, dark shadow cast by the 2005 season still touches the minds of all Colts fans.

During these playoffs, the Colts franchise can finally shine a big, bright light on that shadow, exorcising more demons on the road to Championship glory. And yes, I'm aware I'm starting to sound like J.R.R. Tolkien.

I said in this comments thread that the Colts were facing both a tough physical opponent as well as a mental hurdle. Despite our annoyance with the way they play and how the conduct themselves, the Chargers are a very good football team. However, almost as strong as the Chargers is the knowledge that the Colts have squandered two first round byes in the Manning era. In fact, the Colts have never won a playoff game after a first round bye. In 1999, the Colts were 13-3 and the second seed, like this season. They lost in the divisional round to a very strong Tennessee Titans club in the RCA Dome. In 2005, the season of darkness ended with Mike Vanderjagt sending a gimme 48-yard FG to his mom in the stands rather than through the up rights, handing 6th-seeded Pittsburgh a tremendous playoff win.

Like 2005, this team has had to rest numerous starters because of injury. Marvin Harrison, Robert Mathis, Ryan Diem, Raheem Brock, and Antoine Bethea have all missed significant time since November. Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck made a big deal during the Giants v. Bucs game that the Giants playing starters against the Pats in Week Seventeen gave them an edge over the Bucs, who rested numerous starters in Weeks Sixteen and Seventeen. Troy Aikman quickly refuted Buck's argument, but there is something to be said about it. Last season, the Colts had to play starters up until the last game of the regular season. The Colts also played in the Wildcard Round. Being in the under-dog role, and playing up until the last game of the regular season, really helped propel the Colts to a Championship.

This season, it's different. Like in 1999 and 2005, the Colts are certainly not under-dogs. Sure, they are over-looked, slighted, and considered a third or fourth thought when reporters have New England, Dallas, and Green Bay to yack about, but in terms of wins and loses the Colts are a favorite. Historically, this organization has not played in the playoffs when placed in that position.

With this upcoming match-up, the Colts have an opportunity to exorcise the second round bye demon, and play the kind of tough, Championship-style football we expect from teams favored. The one sense of calm I get (and with calm comes confidence) is that this Colts team is far and away better than the 2005 team. This team, unlike teams in the past, is more comfortable in their skin. They know who they are. They know what they do, and how to do it. They are not rattled, play smart, and have very strong veteran leadership. Still, it's better to write about these things, get them out in the open, and discuss them honestly. The Colts have a big challenge coming up; one of the biggest they've ever faced.

In facing that challenge, will Dungy add a wrinkle or two to the playoff gameplan, much like he did in 2003 and last season? Will he close practices and add something to the schemes that will throw San Diego for a loop? We shall see.