THEY ALL know the numbers. Quarterback Peyton Manning, coach Tony Dungy and the architect of the Colts, president Bill Polian, probably recite them in their sleep. Indianapolis may be 7--0 this season, but Manning is 0--7 in career starts in Foxborough, home of the Patriots and the site of Monday night's showdown between the AFC powers. Since 2001, when New England began its run of three NFL championships in four years, the Colts are 0--6 against the Pats, including two losses at the RCA Dome. Worst of all, New England has knocked Indianapolis out of the playoffs at Gillette Stadium in each of the last two seasons.
This year the Colts are catching the injury-depleted Patriots (4--3) at the right time: Indy is coming off a bye; unless a nor'easter hits this weekend, the track won't be as slow as it was in their last two postseason meetings; and, for a change, Indianapolis has the edge on defense. "This game is probably a must-win for the Patriots in the standings," says Indy coach Tony Dungy, "and more of a must-win for us from a mental standpoint."
Getting his team over the New England hump has been Dungy's goal since training camp, when he recounted to his players what Michael Jordan had said in an interview about the Detroit Pistons, who'd knocked his Chicago Bulls out of the playoffs three straight years. "Jordan's response was that the Bulls had to make themselves a championship team, not worry about the Pistons," says Dungy. "And look how great the Bulls became. I told [the Colts], 'You focus your energy on becoming the best team you can be. Who knows who we'll meet if we get to the playoffs?'"
"It was a perfect thing for Tony to say," says Manning. "In this league you can't get geared up to beat one team. Eventually Chicago got over Detroit, and if we're a better team, we'll get over New England."
The Pats have allowed 25.7 points per game (26th in the NFL), the Colts an NFL-best 11.0. The Indy defense has a terrific set of pass rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (14 sacks combined), and the run D was fortified with the off-season acquisition of free agent tackle Corey Simon. A four-tackle rotation of Simon, Larry Tripplett, Raheem Brock and Montae Reagor has helped hold opponents to two rushing touchdowns all season and 278 total yards per game. Add opportunistic linebacker Cato June (five interceptions), the side-to-side playmaking of middle linebacker Gary Brackett and hard-hitting safeties Mike Doss and Bob Sanders, and the Patriots will see a physical side of the Colts they've never encountered.
"When I got here in 2002," says Dungy, "this is where I hoped to get the defense." A win over New England on Monday would be a big step toward accomplishing his next goal--getting his team to the Super Bowl.