INDIANAPOLIS The Indianapolis Colts embrace their new role as the NFL's forgotten team.
With everybody else debating whether New England is the greatest team in league history, the Colts have remained silent. When the "experts" discuss perfection and records and seemingly hand New England this year's Super Bowl crown, the Colts simply smile.
They prefer it this way.
Instead of thriving on controversy and pressure, as the Patriots do, the record shows Indy performs better when branded a second-class contender.
Its record-chasing quest in 2004 and pursuit of perfection in 2005 ended the same way: with mid-January trips home. Last year, when the glare shifted away from the Colts, they finally won their elusive Super Bowl title.
So from the moment Indianapolis (13-2) officially became overshadowed, on that April day New England traded for Randy Moss, the Colts accepted their position as underdog.
This season's resume shows Indy might be the only team standing in the way of history:
The Colts (13-2) have won six straight despite being decimated by injuries and may be on the verge of getting most of their starters back.
Indianapolis is seven points from being undefeated itself, inexplicably blowing a 10-point lead in the final 10 minutes to New England that cost it home-field advantage in the AFC, and then missing a winning field goal in the final 90 seconds at San Diego.
Indy is the first team in league history to win 12 games in five consecutive years, and is a perfect 5-0 in the NFL's best division, one that could produce three playoff teams and no team under .500.
The Colts have also averaged more points in December, 32.8, than the Patriots, 27.3, indicating it's Indianapolis and Joseph Addai who may be better suited to the inevitably poor conditions in the Northeast in January.
With a win Sunday against Tennessee, Indy would become just the third Super Bowl champion since 1991 to win 14 games in defense of its title. The other two, the 1998 Denver Broncos and 2004 Patriots, happen to be the last two back-to-back champions.
"Human nature doesn't usually allow you to come back with those types of years," Dungy said Monday. "It becomes harder."
Toss aside the record books, and the intangibles look good for Indy, too.
Long criticized for being a finesse team, the Colts have demonstrated their tenacity against a string of opponents intent on dethroning the champs. Indy still won eight times by at least 18 points, rallied when it didn't play well enough to win, and survived a rigorous schedule of six night games, two short weeks and three back-to-back road trips.
Comparably, the playoff schedule should be a breeze.
The offense has overcome Marvin Harrison's 10-game absence, a late-season swoon in the ground game and a fluctuating offensive line. Now that Peyton Manning is getting comfortable with his new colleagues, he's playing like his old self. Since Thanksgiving, he's thrown 15 touchdowns, three interceptions and had ratings over 110 in four of the last five games.
Plus, Dungy now expects Harrison, right tackle Ryan Diem and others to be healthy for the playoffs. The ominous message to every team west of Boston is this: The Colts are ready to defend their crown.
But the biggest impressions have been on defense.
A year ago, the Colts' weak link was supposed to be a small, soft run defense that couldn't stop anyone. In the playoffs, the Colts shut down everyone and used the playoff performance to emerge as the league's No. 3 overall defense this year. That's after losing three starters defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (knee) in training camp, linebacker Rob Morris (knee tendon) in late September and three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney (foot) in mid-November to season-ending injuries.
The revamped secondary ranks No. 1 against the pass, a significant number considering it will take a statement game and perhaps a little help from Mother Nature to contain the Patriots' vaunted passing attack.
By all measures, these Colts are better than last year's champions.
"At this point last year, we weren't clicking on all our cylinders and we were definitely playing a lot more up and down," Dungy said. "Our depth is better and we're doing some things really well."
Are they good enough to win a second straight title?
"I think other teams are better, too, and that's why it (the playoffs) is going to be more competitive," Dungy said. "I think we have to be better, and I think we are."
While New England poses the biggest obstacle for Indy, it is not the only one.
San Diego is hot and could follow the AFC's trend of earning the No. 1 seed one year, missing the Super Bowl, and winning the title the following season. That's the path Pittsburgh and Indianapolis took to the last two championships.
A rejuvenated Fred Taylor has Jacksonville's ground game in high gear, and quarterback David Garrard rarely makes mistakes. Garrard has thrown just three interceptions all season, a necessity if they visit New England.
Pittsburgh has a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and several stars left from the champions of two seasons ago. New England is well, New England.
But Indianapolis has won the last two games in Foxborough, Mass., and now has the one component that was always missing: the experience of winning a Super Bowl.
"I think we're a team really like the other six in the AFC, somebody you don't want to play," Dungy said. "Everybody is saying New England is the odds-on favorite, and they may be. But nobody is saying I want to play San Diego and face LaDainian Tomlinson."
And nobody wants to play the resurgent Colts, either.