- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

BALTIMORE.

Before this season, the Colts never won these kinds of games in the playoffs — the kind of games they won against the Chiefs last week and against the Ravens yesterday at M&T; Bank Stadium. They were great if the score was 49-24 (Broncos, 2004) or 41-10 (Broncos, ‘03), but less great if the score was 21-18 (Steelers, ‘05) or 19-16 (Titans, ‘99).

They won pretty — too pretty, some would say — and they died pretty.

And over the years, they got the reputation of being soft, of being all style and no substance. A dome team. An October team. Definitely not a Super Bowl team.

So what are we to make of their last two snaggle-toothed efforts, a 23-8 victory over Kansas City followed by 15-6 out-toughing of Ray Lewis and Co. — in front of a record (and extremely hostile) Baltimore crowd of 71,162? Have the Colts finally figured out what this postseason business is all about? Have they begun to develop a taste for blood, for getting down and dirty?

As they walked off the field, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy and defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland smiled knowingly at each other. A 15-6 win on the road — on the strength of five field goals and a ferocious defense? It was the kind of game “we used to win” when they were with the Bucs, Dungy said, “a throwback game.”

To which he added, hopefully: “That’s one of the things I think we’ve learned the last five years: How to win tight games, defensive games. How to win on the road.”

Perhaps the Colts have — if they can find a way to win these next two and at long last lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy. Who, after all, would have imagined them advancing to the AFC title game with Peyton Manning throwing one touchdown pass and five interceptions in the first two rounds — and with the Indy defense, which had given up 44 points and an ungodly 375 rushing yards against the Jaguars in Week 14, suddenly resembling one of Dungy’s Tampa Bay units?

I have to admit, it’s strange watching Indy play this way. (It must be just as strange for Indy.) But sometimes, as Dungy put it, a team has to “play the field position game, play for field goals, throw the ball away some — and that’s hard for our offense.”

Manning the Bombardier has been replaced by Manning the Game Manager. Peyton knows he has “Automatic” Adam Vinatieri — now 7-for-7 in this postseason on his side, and so yesterday, especially, he tried not to do anything too risky when the Colts got into field goal range.

“We didn’t come in here expecting to score 35 points,” he said, a wise move given the Ravens’ defensive prowess. “We were hoping maybe 24 or 20 would be enough. We also knew Baltimore’s offense wasn’t super-explosive and wasn’t going to score 30 points, either. So we kinda took that into account [when calling plays].”

There’s no underestimating the impact Vinatieri has had on the Colts. Three years ago, in the AFC Championship game, he pumped through five field goals to help the Patriots beat Indianapolis, 24-14. Yesterday he booted that many field goals for Indianapolis. How weird is that? Vinatieri has brought a little of that New England Certainty to the Colts locker room, that cocksure we’ll-find-a-way attitude that has won the Pats three Super Bowls. If Indy runs the table, he’ll be the Free Agent Acquisition of the Year, hands down — or is it feet down?

“You just feel like he’s going to make it every time he goes out there,” Dungy said. “And in games like this, it’s necessary.”

Is it ever. The Colts’ season ended last year with a makeable field goal try by Mike Vanderjagt veering wildly wide. This season marches on, though, thanks in part to a 51-yard field goal attempt yesterday by Vinatieri that bounced off and over the crossbar to give Indianapolis a 9-3 halftime lead. You just can’t buy that kind of karma.

The last couple of years, the Colts have been a start fast/finish wheezing type of team. They were 13-0 last season when the air started going out of the balloon and 9-0 this season when they began to shudder and shake. That’s why few prognosticators gave them much of a chance in these playoffs; their history just weighed too heavily against them.

But here they are, flying under the radar and into the AFC final. Heck, they might even get to host the title game if the Patriots knock off the Chargers. “Our expectations are the same as they were last year,” Dungy said. “They might not have been anybody else’s expectations, though.”

But then, no one could have envisioned these Colts — the Smashmouth Colts, the Grind It Out Colts, the Big Game Colts. They still don’t seem real.

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