It was only two weeks ago that most people were anticipating what would have been one of the biggest regular-season games in NFL history.
But a lot has changed for the Indianapolis Colts since then.
Following the death of head coach Tony Dungy’s son, which came after their first loss of the season, the Colts play a game without playoff implications in their season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Colts averaged 30 points while holding their opponents to less than 14 per game as they became the first team since the 1998 Denver Broncos to start 13-0. A 26-17 loss Dec. 18 to San Diego ended the team’s chance at an undefeated season, but Indianapolis still locked up its fourth straight AFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
While preparing for a game Christmas Eve against the Seattle Seahawks, the Colts learned Thursday that coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son James was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Florida apartment.
Dungy left the team to be with his family, and the Colts rested their starters for most of a 28-13 loss at Seattle. Colts players claimed it was just like any other game after observing a moment of silence for the Dungy family.
“I think everyone had Coach Dungy and his family on our minds,” quarterback Peyton Manning said. “Our prayers are with him. But when you are out there playing, then you are out there trying to do your job.”
Dungy made a surprise return to the team on Thursday, just two days after speaking for nearly 20 minutes during an emotional two-hour funeral service attended by NFL stars past and present, league officials, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and the entire Colts team.
“I wanted to get back as soon as possible, but I also wanted to make sure my wife and kids were OK,” Dungy said after running his first practice since the tragedy.
“We talked about it and we decided it was the right time,” he said. “If you’re going to have faith, you have to live by it.”
Dungy said he intends to coach this game, though he may limit his starters’ playing time. That means Manning likely will not play long enough to get the 258 passing yards he needs to reach 4,000 for an eighth straight season, but he has grown tired of questions about playing time.
“I think we reveal too much around here as it is,” Manning said. “Every time someone asks me that question, I assume someone is asking me because of their fantasy football team or they have action on the game.”
Running back Edgerrin James already topped 1,500 yards for the fourth time in his career, one shy of Barry Sanders’ record. He is not injured, but will be a gametime decision as the Colts try to get him some rest and get backups Dominic Rhodes and Kory Chapman more carries.
Wide receiver Marvin Harrison already has 1,127 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing the last game due to a hand injury. He did not practice Wednesday and Thursday, but went through limited drills on Friday and will likely start.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney, bothered by a sprained arch for the past month, might see limited playing time this week.
The Cardinals and the Colts are the only NFL teams in the top 10 in both offensive yards gained and defensive yards allowed per game. However, their results were drastically different than the Colts.
The Cards never recovered from an 0-3 start but have split their last six games. Two of the team’s five victories came against the 3-12 San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona posted a 27-21 win Saturday over the injury-riddled Philadelphia Eagles.
But there were some bright spots for the Cardinals as safety Adrian Wilson had eight sacks, an NFL record for defensive backs.
Arizona also has two of the top four receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald (97 catches, 1,329 yards) and Anquan Boldin (94, 1,321). Kicker Neil Rackers has 38 field goals, two shy of setting a single-season NFL record.
Even with the positives, the Cardinals are less than happy another postseason will soon begin without them.
“It’s not satisfying at all, because we’re not going to the playoffs,” Wilson said Monday. “You know, we’ve pretty much had a disappointing year, not living up to the expectations on going to the playoffs nor winning the division, things like that.”