INDIANAPOLIS – Coach Tony Dungy has talked this week about seizing the moment, reminding his players that reaching the AFC championship game on Sunday is a fleeting event, not a constant.
"This week, I talked about the moment, how this city feels, and the fact that you don't get this opportunity very often," said Dungy, whose Indianapolis Colts play host to the New England Patriots. "We left the locker room in Foxborough [Mass.] after the championship game [in the 2003 season] and said, 'Hey, it was a tough loss, but we'll be back.'
"Three years later, we're back, but we don't have the same guys. We only have 18 of those guys [still with us]. It's not like our window is closing. I hate to hear people say, 'Well, the Colts only have this window.' The window closed for 35 of those guys, but it didn't close for the team … We have a group that really should seize the moment."
"Certainly, you see the clock ticking," Manning said. "You see an Edgerrin James get injured or see an Edgerrin James sign with another team and you know that things can change fast."
But the story of the Colts is not who's gone. It is about those who have remained through a career of being good, yet not quite good enough. Specifically, Dungy and Manning are trying to rewrite a story of disappointment … usually at the hands of the Patriots.
And so with that said, if ever there were a time when Dungy and Manning needed to seize the moment, it is Sunday. There has never been a better chance for them to get to the Super Bowl … even though it has been through a somewhat improbable path.
The Colts host the game Sunday because they knocked off No. 2 seed Baltimore and New England sent the top-seed Chargers packing last weekend. Moreover, they host it after posting some amazing numbers in the first two playoff games. Manning had an uncharacteristic five interceptions in those two games. However, the Colts defense, which had been ravaged most of the season, gave up a combined 14 points and only 127 yards rushing in those two games.
In the Patriots, the Colts host a team that has knocked them out of the playoffs twice in the past three years. But the Colts have beaten New England the past two meetings, including a 27-20 victory in Foxborough in Week 9. In that game, the Colts came up with four interceptions against Tom Brady.
Still, this game will further define the legacy of Dungy, whose lack of playoff success cost him a job in Tampa Bay, and Manning, whose career has tracked much like Dan Marino – tremendous stats, but no rings.
"Legacy, that's kind of a deep word," Manning said Friday.
To Dungy, who has had to deal with plenty of second-guessing over his career, Manning shouldn't be judged until his career is over. But Dungy, who said that beating New England would be "poetic justice," knows that history is being written as Manning plays.
"I can remember walking through the stands in Green Bay when I was a defensive coordinator at Minnesota, and people complaining after the games, "We'll never win with this guy. He's too spacey. We'll never win. We have to get rid of Brett [Favre],'" Dungy recalls. "I can remember people talking about John Elway for years and years about how he wasn't able to win the big one. And after they win one, at the end of their careers, we canonize them because we realize how good they were.
"Peyton is probably halfway through his career, so we'll see."
Maybe that's true, but the reality is that judgments are being made. The game Sunday will provide more fodder one way or another.
Or as Manning put it: "I'm not trying to make it bigger than it is. But believe me, it's a big game."