Strangely, as a first-year AFC coach, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts is doing the same things that got him feared and then fired in an NFC town, Tampa.

At both places, Dungy rose to notoriety as a leader who had one of the NFL's finest and most creative defenses but no offense.

Thus Dungy's strength — defense — is at the same time his weakness. He seems to reason that he can build a defensive team so sound that he doesn't need an offense.

Again this year, he's using a good offensive team only as a weapon to help his defense. At Indianapolis, the role of his quarterback, Peyton Manning, is the same as it was for Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King: Run time off the clock with first-down ground plays and other ball-control snaps. Do not attack with first-down passes and other big plays. One of the NFL's brightest coaches, Dungy would lead them all if only he'd come up as an offensive expert. You can't win solely with defense.

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Tampa or Green Bay; Raiders or Titans

SO THE COLTS are out of the Super Bowl race — not mathematically, maybe, but nonetheless certainly — though they're equipped with a coveted quarterback, Manning, plus a record-breaking receiver, Marvin Harrison, and one of the better running backs, Edgerrin James. So who leads the Super Bowl fight? Well, nobody. Who'll be there? That's easier. Going into the last regular-season week of 2002 — in a league that's become remarkable for parity — four teams stand out, if barely. The NFC will be represented in Super Bowl XXXVII by the Tampa Bay-Green Bay winner. The AFC will be there with the Tennessee-Oakland winner. The parity factor could turn up somebody else, theoretically, but that's not likely.

Of the NFC's four division champions — San Francisco, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Green Bay — no team figures to win the conference title. The 49ers don't play well east of San Francisco. The Eagles can alternate three quarterbacks to win the NFC East but not the NFC. The Buccaneers can win at Tampa Bay but not at Green Bay. The Packers can win at Green Bay but not Tampa Bay. In the AFC, only one question remains: Will it be battle-tested Tennessee or Oakland's great passing team? The two other division champions, Pittsburgh and whoever wins the AFC East, don't count. In a year of intense parity, a wild-card winner could theoretically emerge as champion, but that's not likely.

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Manning Like Early-Years Bradshaw

A TEAM THAT should be there, one would suppose, is Indianapolis with Manning, Harrison and Dungy's defense. But, all year, Manning has had to struggle in almost every second half for an absurd reason: His coaches spend the first half playing ultra-conservative offense. They insist on running the ball on first-down plays and taking no interesting chances.

Repeatedly this season, Manning has been in a second-half comeback mode for the same reason that John Elway set so many comeback records at Denver in the old days: The first Denver coach Elway had, Dan Reeves, was (and at Atlanta remains) nearly as conservative as Dungy.

There's no way that Elway would be remembered as a great second-half comeback quarterback if, week in and out, Reeves had let him play in the first half. And precisely the same is true of Manning and Dungy at Indianapolis.

In last Sunday's game, for example, Dungy fell behind at the half, 10-3, only because of Jeremy Shockey's greatness at tight end for the New York Giants. It might be that Shockey is the greatest rookie the NFL ever saw. Even so, Dungy and Manning were poised to make a typical comeback until, on the first play of the second half, New York Coach Jim Fassel shot them down with the NFL's play of the day, an exquisitely timed flea-flicker touchdown.

That's the problem with trying to win with defense alone. There's no way for a good defensive team to make a successful defense against a good offense on every play.

At Denver, despite Reeves' satisfactory defensive team, Elway only won the Super Bowl after he got a passing coach, Mike Shanahan.

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Colts Run Themselves Out of the Race

THE GIANT GAME will be remembered — unless the Colts somehow change direction next month — as the one that ruined Dungy's first year at Indianapolis. But it wasn't any second-half ineptness by Manning that beat the Colts, for, after the flea-flicker play, the Giants won easily by simply changing their defensive priorities to stop Manning's passing instead of James' running.