All the Odds Were Stacked Against Undefeated Colts

Whatever it is the 1972 Miami Dolphins use to toast the ruination of another perfect-season threat -- champagne, diet soda or sparkling prune juice -- they ought to keep an ample supply in storage, maybe open a cellar. This is an annual tradition that will continue awhile.

If the Indianapolis Colts, with a chance to equal the Dolphins' 14-0 record-season record on Sunday, couldn't win a home game against a San Diego Charger team that couldn't win a must-win home game the previous week against Miami, you can argue that no one will ever again complete an NFL season undefeated.

The Colts began this game with one of the best offenses ever assembled, led by two-time-going-on-three league most valuable player Peyton Manning, and a defense that had given up fewer points than anyone other than Chicago. Before Sunday, the Colts were pounding opponents by an average score of 30-14.

They lost to the Chargers, 26-17, in a game that spoke volumes about today's NFL and why the '72 Dolphins' 17-0 record will remain untouched unless the league morphs back into yesterday's NFL.

In today's NFL, the Super Bowl has become too big a prize, the end-all, the goal that dwarfs every other cause and ambition. With so much at stake -- the exalted three Ms: media, money, merchandising -- the Super Bowl has become too large to tinker with, even if the road to the Lombardi Trophy could be lined with a shot at football immortality.

The 1973 Dolphins also won the Super Bowl, but no one lowers his breath and head when referring to them. That's because the 1973 Dolphins lost twice during the regular season. They went 15-2, postseason included. The 1972 Dolphins went 17-0. Hence, they are regarded in the same kind of reverent tones used with the 1927 New York Yankees.

The 2005 Colts could have taken that from the Dolphins. All they needed were home victories against San Diego and Arizona, plus a road victory over an overrated Seattle team, and then ride playoff home-field advantage all the way to Super Bowl XL, where they would be double-digit-point favorites over the NFC champion, be it Seattle or Chicago or Carolina or the New York Giants.

They were done in by clinching home-field advantage a week ago, thus rendering their last three regular-season games "meaningless" if the sole objective is winning the Super Bowl. And considering their careers to this point, who craves to win, who needs to win, a Super Bowl more than Dungy and Manning?

Despite the victories and the statistics and the media genuflections in their general direction, Dungy and Manning will be regarded as underachievers until the moment they walk off the field Super Bowl winners.

So, if you were looking for a team willing to set aside a January postseason run to take a December stab at history, you had the wrong one in the team led by Dungy and Manning.

The Colts didn't go through the motions against the Chargers. They looked flat in falling behind, 16-0, but they steadied themselves to score 17 unanswered points and appeared set for victory No. 14 despite a less than scintillating performance.

But after falling behind, 19-17, they were beaten by an 83-yard touchdown run by a reserve tailback named Michael Turner.

If the Colts truly had to win this game, if their season hinged on the outcome, do you suppose someone in a white helmet might have found a way to stop Turner before the goal line?

In today's NFL, where parity and unpredictability reign, one semi-reliable rule of thumb is: The team that most needs to win a game usually does.

That was certainly San Diego, which squeezed itself into a corner with its inexplicable home loss to Miami.

Perhaps the '05 Dolphins were channeling the spirit of their '72 predecessors. By beating the Chargers in Week 14, they issued the Chargers a win-in-Indy-or-else ultimatum that ultimately saved the '72 Dolphins' place in history.

The only way a 21st-century NFL team will eclipse the '72 Dolphins is if the division championship and home-field advantage remain in doubt through the end of the regular season. The Colts needed someone to push them to the finish.

In the AFC South, Jacksonville presented a reasonable challenge; the Jaguars now 10-4 after holding off San Francisco, 10-9, could very well wind up 12-4 -- and finish three games back.

Elsewhere in the AFC, no other team has fewer than three losses. The Colts needed Denver or Cincinnati in the running for 15-1, not 13-3, to maintain a full focus on 16-0.

Indianapolis next plays Seattle, now owner of the league's longest winning streak at 10 after the Seahawks' 28-24 triumph over Tennessee. Pro football watchers beware: Dangerous amounts of "Super Bowl preview" media hype are headed your way in the days ahead, even though:

a) The Colts have little incentive in this game other than to complete it without any key injuries.

b) The Chicago Bears have no offense, but they haven't yet relinquished NFC home-field advantage to Seattle. The Bears defeated Atlanta, 16-3, in the nighttime chill of Soldier Field, are still in the running for home-field advantage at 10-4 and will be difficult to handle in the NFC playoffs on any outdoor field, regardless of location.

c) The Colts probably heard the news Saturday, oh boy: New England 28, Tampa Bay 0. The Patriots have won their last two games by a combined score of 63-7 and will continue to haunt the Colts until, if or when, Indianapolis dispatches them in a game played in late January.

There is still a lot of things standing in the way of a Colt-Seahawk Super Bowl. Namely, the Bears and the Panthers and the Giants and the Patriots and the Bengals. And, it almost goes without saying, the Colts and the Seahawks.

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