Colts didn't lose direction even after being written off

The Baltimore Sun

Miami -- Dec. 10, 2006, the date that - well, it doesn't live in infamy, but it lives in the minds of every Colts player, coach and follower. It was the day the world knew, for sure, that the Colts didn't have a snowball's chance in Key West of getting to the Super Bowl this season.

"Yeah," safety Bob Sanders said with a sigh, "I'd have to say the Jacksonville game."

It was rock bottom for a defense that was rock bottom in the NFL's defensive stats. It was the 44-17 loss in Jacksonville, when Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 166 yards, and Fred Taylor 131, and Alvin Pearman (!) 71, and the Jaguars 375 overall. It was like something Barry Switzer's Oklahoma wishbone might have done against Kansas State, except it was an eventual playoff non-qualifier against the consensus AFC preseason favorite that had begun the season 9-0.

"That was really ridiculous," Sanders said, "and everybody knew it."

It looks even more ridiculous now, particularly how the Colts were written off at that point. Of course, no team was ever written off more justifiably, since a team that couldn't even slow down the run much less stop it shouldn't be thinking about going to a Super Bowl.

Now, the Colts defense does stop the run, has been stopping it throughout the playoffs and plans to stop it again Sunday when it faces Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson and the run-first, let's-keep-Rex Grossman-from-throwing-it Bears.

"When you watch film against any team and you see running backs getting holes, you lick your chops just in general," Benson said. He acknowledged that the Colts have "stepped it up" lately, but added, "Chops are still being licked, but you're never going to underestimate an opponent."

The Colts know about chop-licking. They also know about Larry Johnson, 32 yards; Jamal Lewis, 53; Corey Dillon, 48 (on seven carries, but hey, the Patriots should've given him more than seven carries).

A month earlier, Jones-Drew and Taylor were popping that much on one run. On multiple runs.

"As a defensive player, you want to take pride in what you do," said defensive end Dwight Freeney, recalling the debacle in Jacksonville again, "and that game was the most embarrassing game I've ever been involved in."

Which makes what has happened lately unrecognizable, at least, and borderline miraculous, at most. All the most vulnerable aspect of the team did was, in short order, completely change the way it was playing. Not what it was playing, like the defensive scheme, or the players that were playing. They simply started playing better.

It takes a confident group and a coach with strong commitment to pull that off. Desperate times called for desperate measures, but when they called the Colts, apparently Tony Dungy hung up, then told his players to go do what they do best.

"We had some ups and downs," said cornerback Antoine Bethea (Ravens fans, you remember him), "and then he came in and said we're gonna keep doing what we're doing. We've just got to do things better. And the way we're swarming, going to the ball, tackling, holding on - we worked it out."

Before doing that, though, they decided, more or less collectively, that they wouldn't snap at their critics about ridiculing their play. Nor would they fall back on reasons that should have exonerated them and, thus, not come off as excuses. The biggest: Sanders, their best run-supporter, missed all but four regular-season games after undergoing early-season knee surgery; he was inactive for the Jaguars stomping.

But there also was defensive tackle Corey Simon getting ill early in the season and sitting out its entirety, and fellow tackle Montae Reagor getting into a serious car accident on the way to the Week 7 game against Washington and missing the rest of the year.

The unit and its players wrestled with their problems and beat them, rather than panicking and going against what they were. That, the players agree, comes from Dungy, who decided he didn't have a good reason to either vent about his fate with injuries and illness, nor a good reason to divert from his defensive principles.

"He doesn't stand back and act like he's not a coach, let his coordinators do the job," Sanders said. "He knows the ins and outs of all of our defense, our offense, our special teams, everybody. To me, that's awesome. That's why it's incredible to play for him."

As it turned out, the defense was good enough to get the Colts there. Dungy's specialty, the knowledge that put him on the head-coaching radar years ago when he was a brilliant young defensive coordinator, didn't hold his offensively explosive team back. When the lineup was gutted and the fundamentals weakened and teams started exploiting them, Dungy got everybody back on track, just in time.

"Of course he should get a lot of credit," Freeney said. "It's his scheme, his defense. He should get all the credit in the world for what's going on. ... But what happens is, he's such a great man, it gets forgotten what a great coach he is."

It's almost been forgotten this week. It shouldn't be, not by anyone who remembers Dec. 10, 2006.

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