The offseason in Indianapolis has been one big game of "What if …"
As in …
- What if in Week 12, Edgerrin James hadn't been stacked up three times at the goal line in the final moments of a 38-34 loss to New England? If James gets through, the AFC championship game is played in the cozy RCA Dome, not windy, frigid Foxboro where Peyton Manning gets intercepted four times.
- What if the NFL had emphasized the five-yard chuck rule a season ago? It was, at least by Indy's thinking, the pounding Patriots cornerbacks laid on Colts receivers just off the line that led to all those interceptions, and was the impetus for renewed enforcement this season.
- What if the normally reliable Manning, the co-MVP for heaven's sake, didn't throw those four interceptions!
We could go on. And in Indianapolis they have – for almost nine months since a glorious season came to a bitter end one victory from the Super Bowl that New England would eventually win.
Thursday night, back in Foxboro, the Colts get a chance at revenge, at redemption and maybe most importantly, at moving on from the frustrating failure of that championship game.
The 2004 NFL season kicks off (9 p.m. ET) with a great one.
"We have another shot this year," Manning said. "Hopefully, we can do a little better this time."
That's the most difficult thing for the Colts and their fans to stomach: It seemingly would only take "a little better" to get past the Patriots. Of course, this is what just about every team says after a loss to New England. But you don't win 15 in a row, the second longest streak in NFL history, by accident.
It is the Patriots who always find a way to be "a little better."
The Colts' big-play trio of Manning, James and Marvin Harrison is intact. Tony Dungy is a top-line coach. The defense is solid. There is experience, a will to win and a sense of urgency.
But there is still the Pats, winners of the last four meetings between the two teams and the last seven at home. They may be getting into Indy's head in a way the Colts dread.
Almost everyone believes it was Dungy who led the charge to prohibit cornerbacks (read: Ty Law) from hammering receivers (read: Harrison) during their routes. Dungy denies this.
"I can say this now," said Dungy this week. "I have never said – or you'll never hear me say – that those non-calls affected the outcome of our game in any way, shape, or form. Those guys beat us."
Those "non-calls"? Got to love left-handed compliments.
Dungy is trying to downplay the importance of Thursday's game.
"[The AFC championship game] doesn't come into play that much for us," said Dungy, who is entering his third season as head coach of the Colts. "It's not a case where if we win, we erase last year. Last year, we had our chance. We had a chance to go to the Super Bowl and we didn't go."
All true, but who can believe him? Yes the NFL is fluid; good teams and bad teams switch places almost every year. Last year's ballyhooed kickoff game featured the Jets and Redskins, who went a combined 11-21.
But no matter what the coaches say, Thursday's game is something more. For the Pats it is a chance to keep their heel on the Colts' throat. For Indy, the offseason had too many regrets for this not to matter. It can't be just another game.
There is no way the Colts want to lose to New England again. There is no way they want the Pats owning a mental (let alone home-field) edge if they meet again in January.
"The danger is you go into [this] game acting like it's a playoff game and the season's over if you lose," said Dungy.
Oh, it won't be over. But the what-ifs will continue.