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Championship Caliber


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With Armageddon in the RCA Dome looming next weekend, here's all you need to know about the Colts' tune-up game at Carolina on Sunday:

• They pretty much stunk up the joint for the first 26-plus minutes of the first half, and still won going away, 31-7.

• Coming off a short week after winning on the road in Jacksonville on Monday night, Indianapolis faced a first-place team that enjoyed the luxury of its bye last week. No matter. They spotted the Panthers a 7-0 lead, then they ripped off the game's final 31 points.

• The Colts won without all-world receiver Marvin Harrison, who was inactive with a bruised knee. They won despite scoring just three points and getting one first down on their opening five drives. They won even though Peyton Manning completed less than 50 percent of his passes (14 of 30) and didn't come close to cracking 300 yards (254). And perhaps most remarkably, they won despite totaling at least five drops, not converting on third down in the first half (0-of-4), and having just 7:51 of possession time in the opening two quarters.

In other words, the Colts played about as badly as they've played in a long, long time -- at least since their pre-playoff, mid-December rut of last season -- and still managed to administer a thorough butt-kicking to a winning team on the road. Trap game? There was no sign of a stinking trap game.

So if you're a Patriots backer, is there hope in how sluggish the Colts started at Carolina, or fear and loathing about how strongly they finished? Perhaps some of both. But if it's going to take somebody's A game to beat the defending Super Bowl champions -- who are now 7-0 for the third consecutive season, tying an NFL record set by the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers -- how can that not serve as the perfect segue to a discussion of the steamrolling Patriots?

The Pats, of course, are 8-0 and setting new standards for the measurement of one's A game. New England humiliated Washington 52-7 on Sunday in Foxboro, and it wasn't really that close. In the Colts' winning locker room, it took all of about five seconds for the topic of next Sunday's showdown with the Patriots to surface.

"Everybody's been talking about it for a long time except us, so I guess now it's safe to talk about it,'' said Manning, an air of resignation in his voice. "They're playing great. It's well documented in what we face in the Patriots, how good of a team they are. It's going to be a super tough challenge.''

The Colts clearly didn't want to spend much time or energy in the postgame on the prospects of finally reaching Patriots week, because they know what awaits them in the coming six days. Non-stop, 24/7, wall-to-wall hype. Maybe shy of Super Bowl standards, but not by a lot. As Game of the Century build-up goes, this matchup actually looks relatively deserving. After all, it's the latest pairing of undefeated teams in the NFL in more than 80 years.

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"I think it'll be a circus,'' Colts head coach Tony Dungy said of the week ahead. "I think it will be a very, very much hyped game. I told our players that I know all [the media will] ask them about next week, but that we should talk about this week and what happened, and next week will have plenty of time to take place for itself.

"But it's going to be a great game. They are a good team. They've played great football all year. Our team has played well. I think it's going to be a big game.''

The Colts have some how gotten lost amid Patriots mania this season, but I think Dungy's take on the two teams is about right. New England has played great football, and Indy has played well. But on Sunday in Carolina, when the Colts had a chance to lose the game early and take a lot of the luster off next week's mega-matchup, they found a way to bury a Panthers team that looked poised for the upset.

On the Panthers first drive, they put together a touchdown march for the ages, covering 80 yards on a mind-boggling 18 plays, killing 11:01 of the clock in the process. DeShaun Foster added the exclamation point with a 3-yard touchdown run. If you want to beat Manning and the Colts, keeping the ball out of No. 18's hands is an excellent blueprint.

On Indy's first five drives, the Colts had three three-and-outs, fumbled once (tight end Ben Utecht) and managed only a six-play, 18-yard field goal drive that was set up by a fumbled punt return by Carolina rookie receiver Ryne Robinson. Indy looked ripe for the taking, and Manning was being pressured into some early and inaccurate throws by the Carolina front four.

But the Colts didn't crack. They hung in the game with their much-improved defense, and then turned the tide with their own long touchdown drive, an eight-play, 86-yard march that took just 1:58 and made it Colts 10-7 just 93 seconds before the half. Though that proved to be enough, Indy came out in the second half re-focused, scoring touchdowns on four of its first five drives.

"That's the difference that I see [with this team] from six years ago,'' Dungy said. "We've had halves like that in the past, and there would be a little frustration. But we've been there, and our guys do have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff. They know we're going to come up with some good stuff. Our guys have a sense that when the half goes like that, especially when we've got the lead at half time, they'll go out and play better in the second half. That comes from experience.''

For the Colts, this win wasn't mere window dressing before next week's big event. Manning's two touchdown passes tied and broke the Colts team record for touchdown passes, which had been 287 by the legendary Johnny Unitas. It also made Dungy the winningest head coach in Colts history, with his 74 wins besting both Don Shula and Ted Marchibroda. Along with New England's Tom Brady, his nemesis of next week, Manning is also now one of the two quarterbacks who have beaten 31 different NFL teams.

As if that's not enough, the Colts' third consecutive 7-0 start means they haven't lost a game in September or October since Halloween 2004, an achievement that Dungy made special mention of to his team.

The superlatives will all be on display this week as the anticipation for the Patriots-Colts mounts. As dominating as New England has been this season, Indy is playing like the champion it is, with confidence and the belief that it controls its own fate.

The Colts look ready. The Patriots look machine-like. Let the countdown to Armageddon begin.