"It's Our Time"

Against their New England nemeses, Tony Dungy's Colts at long last lived up to their promise. Now it's on to Miami--and a Super Bowl XLI showdown with the surging Bears
January 29, 2007

In the bowels ofwhat felt like a haunted house, at a defining moment for a city, a team and afranchise 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 AFCChampionship Game, reeling from a first half in which they'd fallen behind21--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 eyeson 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 itsdowntown Indianapolis hotel, but now his optimism seemed unfounded. Manning,who before Sunday might as well have had CAN'T WIN THE BIG ONE tattooed onhis forehead, was still obsessing over the 39-yard interception for a touchdownhe'd served up to cornerback Asante Samuel, which had put the Patriots up 21--3less than six minutes into the second quarter. It's our time? Had these wordscome from anyone other than Dungy, Manning would have tuned him out. "ButTony is one calm customer, no matter what the circumstance," the Pro Bowlquarterback said later, "and he has a way of making you believe. We'restressed 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 adifference."

To credit acoach's demeanor for inspiring the biggest-ever comeback in a conferencechampionship game and a historic trip to Super Bowl XLI would be overlysimplistic, for Indy's thrilling, 38--34 victory required every bit ofresourcefulness that this long-tormented team could muster. But it's true thateverything the 51-year-old Dungy did at halftime, from his shrewd strategicadjustments to the perspective he provided, steeled a group of men who reverehim at a time when abject panic was a couple of bad plays away. In return, with30 transcendent minutes of football, the Colts claimed a triumph steeped insignificance: They vanquished their archnemesis, a team that had twice humbledthem in the postseason while winning three of the last five Super Bowls;Manning vaulted closer to the realm of the Pats' Tom Brady, his chief rival forsupremacy at the sport's most glamorous position; and the franchise, whichmoved from Baltimore to title-starved Indy in 1984, earned its first Super Bowlberth in 36 years.

Oh, and this: TheUltimate Game just got a double dose of overdue diversity. When the Colts meetthe Chicago Bears at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Feb. 4, Dungyand Lovie Smith, his close friend and former assistant, will make history asthe first African-American head coaches to stand on a Super Bowl sideline. Aman who appreciates the milestone's importance, Dungy smiled on Sunday as hewatched the Bears take an 18-point lead over the New Orleans Saints in the NFCtitle game. Heading to the field for pregame warmups shortly afterward, hethought, Lovie's done it; now I've got to do my part. Dungy figured an 18-pointdeficit was insurmountable--a notion, oddly enough, that his Colts would dispela few hours later.

In a league ofultracompetitive jockeying and ulterior motives, few figures are as widelyadmired as Dungy, who despite being one of the most successful coaches of thepostmerger era (a 114--62 regular-season record) had lost eight of 13 playoffgames before Indy entered this postseason as a No. 3 seed. After reviving theonce-pathetic Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an impressive six-season run as theircoach, Dungy was fired before the 2002 season--then saw his replacement, JonGruden, 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 ReggieWayne said last Thursday night as he and 10 Indy defenders dined at anIndianapolis steak house. "We want to make up for that, and we know thatthis can be the first time an African-American coach is in the Super Bowl. Wewant to do that for him so bad, because he's like a father figure."

The players alsoare painfully aware of what the affable, deeply religious Dungy went throughlast season: In December 2005, Tony and wife Lauren's son James committedsuicide at age 18. Tony missed the second-to-last regular-season game butreturned after a weeklong absence. In its playoff opener top-seededIndianapolis looked understandably distracted and suffered a 21--18 upset tothe eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

A little more thana year later Indy seemed to be replaying the Pittsburgh game, as thefourth-seeded Patriots caught the Colts napping in Naptown. New England took a7--0 first quarter lead when Patriots guard Logan Mankins dived on the ball inthe end zone after Brady and Laurence Maroney had mishandled an exchange fromthe Colts' four. (The football gods would return the favor early in the fourthquarter on a strangely similar play that bounced Indy's way, with center JeffSaturday getting the star turn.) A seven-yard run by Corey Dillon put NewEngland up 14--3, and two plays later Samuel jumped a sideline pass fromManning to wideout Marvin Harrison that hit the mute button on 57,433 fans. TheColts drove to the New England eight late in the half but settled for ex-Patskicker Adam Vinatieri's second field goal.

The deficit calledfor adjustments, and Dungy and his assistants delivered. New England coach BillBelichick, as is his custom, had devised a new wrinkle to throw at Manning,benching pass-rushing linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, shifting veteran insidebacker Mike Vrabel to Banta-Cain's outside spot and giving third-yearlinebacker Eric Alexander his first career start. The move put Alexander, who'sspeedier than Vrabel, on tight end Dallas Clark and allowed the Patriots todisguise some of their zone coverages with man-to-man looks--a ploy that helpedSamuel bait Manning into throwing the interception.

But Dungy provedthat his mind is as robust as his heart. "Belichick gets all the credit fortraining smart football players," says San Francisco 49ers backup QB TrentDilfer, who played for Dungy in Tampa, "but Tony teaches football IQ aswell as anybody in the NFL." Dungy's first move at halftime was to tweakIndy's predictable deployment of its Pro Bowl wideouts: Harrison on the rightand Wayne on the left. Instead, the Colts sent Wayne into the slot, with thirdwideout Aaron Moorehead or Clark taking his place on the outside. This, saidreceivers coach Clyde Christensen, forced the Patriots out of their base 3--4and into a nickel package that used a Cover Two scheme. With the cornersplaying press coverage, Clark and Wayne could exploit openings in the middle ofthe field.

Dungy also flashedback to one of his team's crushing losses to New England: a 38--34 home defeatin '03, when Indy trailed 31--10 before mounting a comeback that fell a yardshort. "This gap is easier to close," Dungy told his players at thehalf. "We get the ball first, and if we score a touchdown on our firstdrive, we're only one score down."

Manning and theoffense came out firing; he ended a 14-play, 76-yard drive with a one-yardsneak to make it 21--13. The Pats went three and out, and Manning mobilizedonce again, beginning with a 25-yard pass over the middle to Clark. The driveended, improbably, on Manning's one-yard toss to backup defensive lineman andgoal line fullback Dan Klecko. When Harrison made a terrific catch of agorgeous Manning fade to the right corner for a two-point conversion to tie thegame with four minutes left in the third quarter, it was time for the world'stwo best quarterbacks to step on the gas.

Gentlemen, startyour spirals. Brady's willowy six-yard toss to wideout Jabar Gaffney in theback of the end zone put New England up 28--21. Manning answered by drivingIndy to the Patriots' two, whereupon Saturday recovered running back DominicRhodes's fumble to tie the game. The two teams traded field goals before rookieStephen Gostkowski's 43-yarder gave New England a 34--31 lead with 3:49 left.Each defense forced punts without allowing a first down, and when Manningtrotted onto the field with 2:17 to go and the ball at his own 20, these werethe stakes: Drive 80 yards and take a trip to Electric Bradyland; fall shortand face at least another year's worth of chokes-under-pressure barbs.

Manning was on hisgame even before kickoff on Sunday, as his mother, Olivia, attested outside theColts' locker room afterward. Noting that she and her husband, former Saintsquarterback Archie, were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, Oliviagestured toward Peyton's older brother, Cooper, and his younger brother, NewYork Giants quarterback Eli, standing nearby. "Only one of my boysremembered," Olivia said, pulling out her cellphone to reveal a textmessage sent at 2:58 p.m. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY. I LOVE Y'ALL--PEYTON.

On the mostglorious drive a Manning quarterback has ever led, Archie was hiding in thetunnel behind the end zone, nervously sneaking peeks at the field. Peytonsandwiched completions to Wayne around a 32-yard deep out to third-string tightend Bryan Fletcher. Suddenly it was first down at New England's 11, and a pairof runs by rookie Joseph Addai set up a third-and-two at the three. The Patstypically blitz in such situations, but Dungy reasoned that they'd be hesitantbecause they'd been burned while doing so--on a Manning fade to Harrison for aTD--during Indy's 27--20 win in Foxborough in November. He was right. The Patssat back. Addai took a handoff and blasted up the middle for the sweetest scoreany Colts fan has seen since Johnny Unitas hung up his high-tops.

Still, this epicwasn't finished until Brady, with 24 seconds to go and the ball at the Indy 45,zipped a pass over the middle toward tight end Benjamin Watson. Coltscornerback Marlin Jackson saw it like a neon light on South Beach. He raced into make the interception that sent a choked-up coach and his jacked-up playersto Miami.

Long after theconfetti-laced celebration on the field, Dungy retreated to the dressing areaand let his emotions flow. He talked of the inspiration he'd derived fromJames's memory and from the other parents of suicide victims whom he hasbefriended in the wake of his son's death. And he recalled the goodbye hug hegot from Lauren on Sunday afternoon as he prepared to leave for the Dome.

"I want ablowout," she'd said, to which her husband replied, "It's probably notgonna be that way. It's gonna be a nailbiter." Then she clutched him tightand whispered, "No matter what happens, no matter what you do, I supportyou."

On this landmarkSunday, Lauren Dungy had more company than she could have known--most notablyfrom a locker room full of players whose leader refused to let them wilt. Andreally, why should they have? It was their time.

MORE
Senior Moments
Get daily coverage of the Senior Bowl, including draft expert Tony Pauline'sRisers and Sliders.
ONLY AT SI.COM

Everything Dungy did at halftime STEELED his men at atime when panic was a few bad plays away.

PHOTOBill FrakesWHAT ADIFFERENCE ... Fate turned Indy's way when Colts center Saturday (63) picked upa fumble in the end zone--mirroring an earlier score by a Pats lineman--to tiethe game at 28. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER STRIKINGPEYDIRT
Leading a comeback of historic proportions, Manning shed once and for all the"can't win the big one" tag.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO PHOTOBILL FRAKESPATDOWN
Darrell Reid and the Colts' defense kept their opponent under 100 yards rushingfor the third straight playoff game.
PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSMARTSHIFT
The decision to move Wayne to the slot at halftime--freeing him to exploit themiddle of the field--paid off big on the winning drive.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)