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Colts' history shows team should avoid Super Bowl hangover

ANDERSON, Ind. -- It's no doubt a distinction he would gladly decline on their behalf if he could, but the label that Jim Caldwell's defending AFC champion Colts must content themselves with as the 2010 season looms is this: They're as uniquely equipped as any Super Bowl loser in recent memory to avoid the dreaded hangover effect that plagues so many teams winding up on the wrong end of the big confetti shower.

After all, the steady-as-she-goes Colts never overreact to defeat, and they never panic. Be it a regular-season loss, a playoff loss, or even after experiencing the biggest letdown in sports -- a Super Bowl upset defeat. Indy just regroups, reloads and gets back to the business of taking its next shot at winning the big shiny silver trophy.

These Colts wear blinders of sorts, and it seems to keep them incapable of anything but looking ahead, ever forward. That's one key ingredient to those NFL record seven consecutive seasons of 12 wins or more, and a league-high eight straight trips to the playoffs. Caldwell's team is relentless and resilient when it comes to moving on. Continuity and consistency are cherished family values in Indy's organization, and the Colts don't blow up half the roster and make changes for change's sake in the wake of defeat.

"For the most part, there's no panic within our system,'' Caldwell said Thursday morning after a training camp practice at Anderson University. "I think that has a lot to do, top to bottom, with ownership and how (Colts president) Bill (Polian) runs the team from a personnel standpoint. That's kind of how it's always been around here.

"You certainly never forget (the Super Bowl loss). That's not the issue. But I do think when you look at us overall, we've been pretty good over the years of compartmentalizing things from week to week. Whether that's after a huge win, and we've had some big ones, and the same thing happens when we look at the antithesis to that, (when) we've had some tough losses.''

None have been tougher than last year's 31-17 loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, the bitter denouement to a season that started with the Colts racing to a 14-0 record and not making rookie head coach Caldwell experience his career's first defeat until two days after Christmas. We're not talking Joe Namath leads the Jets over the Colts in a Super Bowl III-level stunner, but suffice to say the upstart Saints denying Indy its second ring in four seasons gives this franchise another bad Super Bowl memory in Miami to go with that epic upset of 41 years earlier.

But the question of the hour is how will Peyton Manning and these Colts respond to the most crushing loss of Manning's 12-year career? There have been shocking one-and-done playoff exits and AFC title game losses to endure in the past, but never a second-place finish in the NFL's ultimate game.

And keep the following pieces of history firmly in mind as the 2010 Colts begin pushing their rock back up the NFL hill:

• The most recent team to lose the Super Bowl one season and win it the following year were the 1971-72 Miami Dolphins, who lost to Dallas in Super Bowl VI and beat Washington in Super Bowl VII. The 1970-71 Cowboys were the first and only other franchise to accomplish that feat.

• In eight of the past 11 seasons, the Super Bowl loser from the year before failed to even make the playoffs. Three teams defied the trend: the 2009 Cardinals, the 2006 Seahawks and the 2000 Titans. But they combined to go just 2-3 in playoff games the year after their Super seasons, with none even getting back to the conference title round.

• No Super Bowl loser has even returned to the big game the following year since the Buffalo Bills made their fourth consecutive trip (all losses) in 1993.

All that said, I'm not sure any of it really applies to these Colts, a team that's 89-23 (.795) over the course of the past seven regular seasons, winning between 12 and 14 games every year. In Indy, they've heard the noise before about the Super Bowl window of opportunity closing, and it hasn't really budged. Change seemed to be in the air last year during training camp, too, with Caldwell taking over for the departed Tony Dungy, but the train just kept rolling.

"Before 2006, before we won that Super Bowl (against Chicago), that was kind of a common theme, the window had closed,'' Caldwell said. "We lost the year before in the playoffs to Pittsburgh (in the divisional round) and everybody's talking about the window had closed on us. That kind of thing. But we're hoping none of that applies to us. We don't worry about the pronouncements, all we do is try and focus in on trying to win football games.''

This year, the Colts have some change to deal with, but not much by typical NFL standards. Clyde Christensen has been elevated to offensive coordinator and will take over the play-calling duties from longtime Colts assistant Tom Moore, but Moore is still on hand as a senior offensive assistant and will have input in an advisory role. With veteran offensive line coach Howard Mudd retired, Pete Metzelaars bumps up a notch to oversee the O-line. But the Colts roster largely remains intact, with key contributors such as safety Bob Sanders and receiver Anthony Gonzalez returning to health after missing most of last season.

Status quo can be the enemy in the NFL, but that rule just doesn't seem to apply to the Colts the way it does the rest of the league. Could it possibly be as simple as Indy's Super Bowl hopes will remain viable as long as Manning remains under center?

"Yes,'' Gonzalez said candidly. "This is a quarterback-driven league, everybody says it. And he's the best one there is. It's possible, maybe even likely, when it's all said and done, statistically he'll be the best one there's ever been. So there's no reason to think while he's here that things are going to change a whole lot.

"Success breeds stability, and that's definitely how it seems to work around here. Things are going to get done that way so long as we stay successful. It's easy to put one or two or four losses behind you over the course of a season. It's another thing to put 10 losses behind you. That would bring about some change.''

It's not as if the Colts don't have some obvious trouble spots to address this season. Indy finished a dismal last in the league in rushing last season (80.9 yards per game), and was just 24th on rushing defense (126.5). In addition, can the Colts really expect once again to post seven fourth-quarter comebacks as they did last season, the most by any team since the 1970 merger?

"We don't hide from facts,'' Caldwell said. "You try to make adjustments where they need to be made. We have to improve our ability to stop the run and we have to have the ability to run the ball.

"But I know what we do, and I understand why we play the way we play and it's because of how we prepare. And we're preparing exactly the same way we've prepared for the last nine years. That's kind of what we do.''

Within a couple weeks of the Super Bowl loss, Polian and the rest of the Colts front office were at work analyzing the team's roster and trying to learn from the stinging defeat against the Saints, a game Indy once led 10-0. There were no grand revelations coming forth from that self-inspection, just a realization that the Colts didn't pass protect Manning as well as they had all year long, and that at the game's most critical moments, the Saints were the more aggressive, daring team -- and it paid off with big plays and points.

"We've always been analytical in how we go about it,'' Polian said. "Don't panic. Take some time. Step back. Make the right decisions. Don't make the emotional decisions.

"We didn't make two critical plays in the third-and-1 and the onside kick. And then we missed three other plays because the quarterback got pressure, (plays) that would have been gigantic plays in the Super Bowl game. So it was us. The Saints didn't do anything different than what any number of people had done to us.''

It's not accurate to say the Colts are "over'' their Super Bowl disappointment, but they are in the process of moving on from it. Maybe that's why there's always a sameness in Colts camp, because of their ability to get back to work and focus on the task at hand, no matter if their last game represented triumph or disaster.

"I guess we'll find out if we're over it, right?'' Gonzalez said. "That's the beauty of it. We'll know once the games start. But sitting here right now, I don't feel like guys are any different, or their attitudes are any different. If anything I feel like guys have come back even stronger, hungrier.''

Said Polian: "I don't think you ever turn (the page). It's always there. It's not going to change. It's in the history books. They're not going to suddenly decide that we can replay the game. You have to live with it, and you've got to get beyond it.''

That might be as much of a Super Bowl hangover as this year's Colts are destined to experience. That sickening feeling of an opportunity lost. One that won't go away until another playoff opportunity presents itself. With Manning and Co. still in place, and the Colts as always not inclined to try and re-invent the wheel, betting against them to get another shot in the postseason seems as unwise as ever.

"We want to get on another run,'' Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "This year we want to hopefully go 16-0. We want to get that bitter taste out of our mouths. We want to just go out there and start playing football again.''

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