With Tony Dungy unlikely to be there, this game will feel different than any other the Indianapolis Colts have played. Maybe the best tribute to their heartbroken coach would be treating it like every other game.
Two days after Dungy’s son died, the Colts will do their best to maintain a business-as-usual attitude—just what their coach would want—when they meet the Seattle Seahawks in a possible Super Bowl preview.
Dungy will be away from the team indefinitely, having flown to Florida on Thursday after learning his 18-year-old son, James, was found dead of an apparent suicide.
A medical examiner’s preliminary report Friday confirmed that James Dungy took his own life, although the cause of death will not be determined for four to six weeks.
“Players were surprised and upset emotionally about it,” Peyton Manning said. “Everybody said a team prayer for coach Dungy and his family. It’s laying on the hearts of all the players here.”
Assistant head coach Jim Caldwell takes over in the absence of Dungy, whose message to the team is to persevere and keep preparing as it normally would.
“He’s an amazing individual with great strength and integrity, even in the toughest times,” Caldwell said after Thursday’s practice. “He told us to carry on as usual.”
It’s hard to imagine the Colts would not do just that for Dungy, one of the most liked and well-respected coaches in football.
“It’s an extremely sad day and an extremely sad time,” center Jeff Saturday said. “We want to handle ourselves in the way coach wants us to.”
The players know, however, that keeping their focus on football won’t be easy, and neither will beating the team many are predicting they will face in the Super Bowl.
“Coach Dungy wants us to practice hard, stay focused and get a win,” linebacker David Thornton said. “This will be a true test for a championship team, it will show you our character and how we react to adversity. And we’re all thinking of coach Dungy.”
The Colts are looking to prevent the Seahawks from extending their franchise-record win streak to 11 games and clinching home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Seattle’s Mike Holmgren, who called Dungy ‘a good friend’, acknowledged it will be somewhat awkward to coach against the Colts with all they are suddenly enduring.
“But we must separate that,” he said. “We still have a lot at stake. We must be able to do that. So that is what we are going to do.”
Indianapolis wrapped up home-field in the AFC two weeks ago, but the team still had plenty to play for last week as it tried to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins at 14-0. Instead, the Colts lost 26-17 to San Diego as Manning took his worst physical beating of the season.
Now it’s likely up to Caldwell, also the quarterbacks coach, to decide how much Manning’s playing time should be limited against a Seattle defense which leads the NFL with 45 sacks.
The Colts are likely to rest many of their top players, no longer having a perfect record at stake or anything to gain playoff-wise.
Caldwell already has announced three injured starters—receiver Marvin Harrison, Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June and starting right tackle Ryan Diem— would not even travel to Seattle. Defensive linemen Corey Simon and Robert Mathis, Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders and defensive tackle Montae Reagor also may sit out with minor injuries.
This is the first regular-season game in league history to match teams which have combined for at least 25 victories. This contest also pits the NFL’s highest-scoring teams, with the Colts having totaled 409 points and the Seahawks 407.
While Indy tries to set a franchise record with its 14th victory, Seattle is looking to do the same by getting its 13th. The Seahawks have won 10 in a row, and are looking to finish with a perfect home record for the second time in three seasons.
They’re 21-4 at Qwest Field since the end of 2002 in the regular season and playoffs, making home-field advantage so significant for the Seahawks. They will clinch it with a win Saturday or a Chicago loss at Green Bay on Sunday.
“Our next goal is to be guaranteed the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which is a big deal,” Holmgren said. “It is a very important game for us. You have a wonderful team you are playing against.
“We have to play our absolute best Saturday.”
Seattle clinched a first-round bye last week with a 28-24 win over lowly Tennessee. The Seahawks blew a 14-0 lead and trailed in a game for the first time since Nov. 27, but came back to win behind Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander.
Hasselbeck is the NFC’s highest-rated passer and has been particularly outstanding the last two weeks, completing 42 of 52 passes for 511 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception.
Last week, Alexander rushed for 172 yards and scored his 24th touchdown, three shy of Priest Holmes’ NFL record set in 2003. He needs 29 rushing yards to break his own team record of 1,696 set last season.
It’s on the other side of the ball where Holmgren has concerns.
Seattle’s banged-up secondary gave up 336 passing yards to Tennessee, less than a week before facing the NFL’s top-rated passer in Manning.
Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin is out for the season, and cornerbacks Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon will both sit out again this week. Herndon has missed three straight games with a left knee injury while Dyson has been sidelined for the last two contests because of a sprained left ankle.
Seattle also failed to record a sack last week for the first time this season.
Now the Seahawks’ defensive front goes against an Indianapolis offensive line which has surrendered seven sacks in the past two games. The Colts allowed nine in the season’s first 12 contests.
This game presents a number of challenges for Indy, the biggest of which is not football-related.
Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, who had three relatives die in a 16-month span beginning in late 2003, believes football can provide a respite.
“Any time you’re on the field, it’s a place you can run around free and not think of all the outside influences,” Brackett said. “It helps.”