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The plot sickens

The Baltimore Sun

So much for Super Bowl 41 3/4 .

So much for the Indianapolis Colts being the last serious, legit obstacle between the New England Patriots and 19-0. No disrespect to the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers ... no, that's not true. Much disrespect to the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, at least on this issue.

And so much for Good vs. Evil, The Sequel. (Or Good vs. Evil II: Electric Boogaloo.)

Man, did the San Diego Chargers make a mess of things yesterday, kicking the Colts - the defending champs, the injury-riddled survivors who still went 13-3 - to the curb in the divisional playoffs. In the RCA Dome, yet. With Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson on the sideline. With the Colts holding the lead late before falling behind again and creeping into the red zone in the final three minutes and getting the ball back one more time, with two timeouts left in the final two minutes.

And with Norv Turner on the other sideline. Tony Dungy has been a great coach, a pioneer and has left an indelible mark on the NFL, but if he's losing playoff games at home to Norv Turner, then retirement might not be the worst idea in the world.

But all of that is mere subplot. The real plot is that now, there is no plot, not for next week's AFC championship game in Foxborough, Mass., not for the rest of the NFL playoffs and not for the Super Bowl. The Patriots should just wear their "Super Bowl XLII Champions" caps and T-shirts at their walk-through tomorrow.

All of the pro football world should be frowning this morning, if not weeping. Yes, no one threw a bigger scare into the Patriots during their stampede through the regular season than the Ravens. The Philadelphia Eagles provided the initial chink in the armor the week before. The New York Giants made the Patriots sweat, brought the best out of them, in the regular-season finale, and the Jacksonville Jaguars made them work in Saturday's playoff game and forced Tom Brady to be almost perfect.

But only the Colts truly deserved to be in the same conversation as the Patriots, as they proved over the course of the season, and as they showed in their November showdown in Indy, one of the best regular-season games you'll ever see.

That game only added to the history between the teams. The Patriots keeping Peyton Manning from his destiny year after year in the playoffs. Brady surpassing him as the defining quarterback of this generation and beating him to the inevitable comparisons with Unitas and Montana. Manning finally overcoming it all last season.

That was only the drama on the field. On the sideline, there was Dungy overcoming his own postseason shortfalls and breaking with precedent at the same time by becoming the first black coach to win it all, crossing all boundaries and becoming a beloved figure while doing it.

On the other side, there was Bill Belichick having every answer for Manning and Dungy time and time again, doing it so well in their first big playoff meeting that the NFL had to tweak its rules on pass coverage in response. Along the way, he created a legacy of his own while positioning himself, maybe by choice, as the anti-Dungy. You know, what with the cheating and running up of scores and all.

It all whetted America's appetite for the AFC championship game, because the first time they played - 24-20, Patriots, in case you forgot - it was an instant classic full of unforgettable moments. That wasn't just a fierce test or a threat to perfection; that was a promise that all this flirting with the mark set by the 1972 Dolphins meant virtually nothing until the two met again in January.

There was no way any team in the AFC was going to disrupt the march to history. No way, right?

Way, said the Chargers. The Chargers. No disrespect intended ... no, not true again, much disrespect intended.

The most learned men of our day will no doubt spend countless hours dissecting and analyzing the evidence, yet still might not figure out how the Chargers won. It will be hard for anyone outside Southern California not to view the events of yesterday as the Colts blowing it.

Whether you wanted the Patriots to go all the way or wanted them to get stuffed before getting there or just savored the excellence the Colts and Patriots brought out of each other, you feel the way the Colts do right now.

You lost.


Listen to David Steele on Tuesday at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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