Indianapolis — Indianapolis-- --This isn't just an AFC championship game. It's a therapy session, and the Indianapolis Colts, their quarterback, their coach, their city and the entire state are on the couch.
It takes about a half-hour to realize that - at least it does if you checked a bag on the flight into town. "Think the Colts will win?" the rental car courtesy bus driver asked yesterday afternoon. After hearing the diplomatically noncommittal answer, the driver sighed and said, "They'd better. They've got to this time."
That is the underlying theme of tomorrow's game against the New England Patriots - and, despite what some of the Colts' players have said, the fact that it is against the Patriots is no small factor. Yet the foundation of it all is that this - the 23rd season since their infamous arrival from Baltimore, the ninth season of the Manning Era and the fourth season since they first climbed to that next-to-last rung - has to be their year.
When defensive end Dwight Freeney said about this current run at a Super Bowl berth, "It's kind of for everyone," he included "the city" along with his teammates and coaches. That's not all that different from what players say about their loyal fans in every city, including Ravens fans. But for long-suffering fans, it means even more.
It is at the heart of the frustration felt by the locals before last week's playoff game at M&T; Bank Stadium, when Baltimoreans threw barb after barb at Indianapolis for taking away the team's heritage in 1984. At least, the Indy faithful replied, your city's new team has won a championship since then. At least the Baltimore segment of the legacy includes championships.
That was the ultimate comeback for those so inclined. Sure, you got the Colts, but we got the rings. After 23 years, what do you have?
Bringing the Colts here put Indianapolis on the national sports map the way nothing else could have - not even the NBA's Pacers, who were born in the renegade, less-respected American Basketball Association. But in return for the unconditional love, the fans want a championship, and they feel more pain every day they don't have one.
The bar is set high for the Colts; it has been since the first time Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and the rest reached the AFC title game after the 2003 season. Every schoolkid in Indiana can recite the history: They lost in New England when the Patriots' defensive backs manhandled the Colts' receivers and Manning couldn't drive them through it. The next year, it was another trip to New England, but a divisional playoff loss when the offense scored just three points.
The year after that - last season, the year of the 13-0 start and the home-field advantage for the entire AFC playoffs - they lost in the divisional round to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, here is another season with a phenomenal start - for the second straight year, the last NFL team to lose a game, going 9-0, and another trip to the AFC title game. And another faceoff with New England. The Patriots are to the Colts as the New York Yankees were to the Boston Red Sox, as the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, as the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s were to the San Francisco 49ers.
However, the reality has been more like the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the Sacramento Kings of Chris Webber. The Kings never got past the Lakers. That's the fear coursing through the region, that despite the feeling that it's been destined for this Colts team to get to the Super Bowl, a cruel fate awaits.
That might explain the apparent extra hostility toward the opponent from the fans. Although it won't be enough to drown out the home fans, the Patriots are going to have a noticeable segment of followers in the RCA Dome tomorrow, and it's likely they won't be received well. When a wave of them got off the plane yesterday, sporting their gear, they were greeted by travelers waiting to get on the next flight out. "Patriots [stink]!" one shouted the moment they appeared from the walkway.
It might also explain the abundance of pep rallies yesterday, one in a downtown plaza at lunchtime, another a few blocks away when work let out and the serious social preparation for tomorrow's game commenced. Again, there was a common theme, from the rally participants and everybody who wore blue and white to work and school: not so much "We'll get them," but "We'll get them this time."
To ignore that twist would take a special effort. Freeney's comments showed that he wasn't ignoring it. Manning wasn't, not completely - but, he insisted, he couldn't afford to get caught up in it.
"As far as all the outside factors and defining moments in the past history of this series," he said yesterday, "there's enough in the actual X's and O's of the football game to think about and focus on. That's really what I've tried to focus on. I've tried not to make the game any bigger than it is."
Dungy, however, acknowledged that he's very well tuned in to the subplots, the ones that ratchet the intensity past even what a game with a Super Bowl berth on the line would create.
"It's a big challenge. We want to get there," he said. "It would be fantastic - first time since the team's been here in Indianapolis, and that's more what we're wired to."
Count on it. The city, region and state are wired for it right back.