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By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
November 29, 2005
INDIANAPOLIS – To understand how far the Indianapolis Colts have come, you have to go back to January of 2004 when the Patriots wrote the book on solving the Colts. Leading up to an AFC championship game his team would win, Patriots coach Bill Belichick made his practice theme as singular as it was brutal. As Belichick preached it, if you knocked the Colts around, they would surely wilt in frustration.
After all, that's what finesse teams do.
For those old Colts – a crew consisting of merely speed and athleticism – getting perpetually socked by New England for two straight years in the playoffs apparently taught them a lesson. Because this Indianapolis team clearly knows Belichick's theory, which, entering this season, had been spread throughout the NFL as if it were gospel. After Monday's 26-7 win over Pittsburgh, the Colts put that reputation to rest, replacing it with something the league's dominant teams didn't think Indianapolis had – grit.
For those still wondering, the Colts have plenty of toughness, making them a far cry from the playoff waif of the past. Doubters need look no further than the first quarter of Monday's game, when Pittsburgh brought its reputation as a defensive bully and punishing running team into the RCA Dome and then got thoroughly dismantled.
"They pretty much dominated us," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "Our offense to their defense, they were pretty smothering out there and we really couldn't get anything going. Their offense and their defensive front pretty much dominated tonight. You can't deny that."
The indications were there right from the start – from Pittsburgh's first offensive play, when Willie Parker was hit for a one-yard loss, to Indianapolis' first play from scrimmage, when a play action fake by Peyton Manning resulted in a perfect 80-yard touchdown bomb to Marvin Harrison.
But for those looking for a more concrete sign that this isn't just another Indianapolis team with a sprinter's mentality, Harrison would provide the game's defining moment during the Colts' next offensive series. That's when Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor went to the textbook response to a big play from the Indy receiving corps and ratcheted up his physical contact with Harrison downfield.
It was precisely what the Patriots taught their cornerbacks two years ago – that if you bump and jab the Colts' receivers, they will become frustrated and lose focus. Only this time, Harrison added a twist to the story. When Taylor smacked him in the helmet with an open hand on the sixth play of Indianapolis' second drive, Harrison jabbed back. When Taylor did it again one play later, Harrison delivered a forceful shove to Taylor's facemask, drawing a 15-yard penalty.
While that wasn't the kind of thing Colts coach Tony Dungy wanted (and he would criticize it later), Harrison's retaliation sent the message that Indianapolis players had wanted to deliver early.
"It pumped me up, man," Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. "It kind of got me excited because Marvin is always laid back. He's always one of these guys who sits back and just goes out and does his job. But whenever you see him pumped up, it kind of pumps you up and kind of makes you want to go out there and get busy and get dirty."
As Colts defensive tackle Corey Simon put it, "We knew it was going to be a fight when Marvin got a personal foul. That's a rarity. He held his own."
That was the new theme Indianapolis was looking to spread around the league – the fact that this team is ready to hold its own. While the Colts have typically struggled with deliberate defensive-minded teams that play a physical game – such as New England and Jacksonville – they are suddenly playing patient and beating teams at their own game. They did it against Baltimore and Jacksonville early this season, but skeptics remained.
If anything, the Steelers were the truest test of Indianapolis' mettle, both to its undefeated record and its diverse offense, which has shown the ability to switch styles only slightly less than a NASCAR driver shifting gears.
"We can play any way and we're comfortable playing any way," Colts head coach Tony Dungy said. "We knew we were going to have to go to Cincinnati (last week) and score some points, and we did that. Today, we felt like, 'Hey, it was going to be tough on our offense.'
"We heard so much about how it was going to be a physical game and how physical these guys were. I think we wanted to prove that we were going to be physical and tough and not back down."
When the Colts finished proving their point Monday, they had held Pittsburgh's vaunted running game to 86 yards on 25 carries, forced a pair of interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger and grinded out 366 yards against the Steelers' highly respected defense (with 124 of those yards coming from running back Edgerrin James).
All of that paled in the larger picture, when considering what the win actually meant. Not only did the Colts legitimize their undefeated start against what will likely be one of their chief AFC title competitors, but they also added impressive wins over AFC East-leading New England and the AFC North's other heavy hitter, Cincinnati.
Not bad for a finesse team, eh?
"We don't think we are (that)," Dungy said. "We never thought we were. It's something that, yeah, (the players) don't like to be called that. But you can't change people's perception."
Maybe Dungy will feel differently after watching Monday's game tape. If there's one thing the 11-0 Colts are doing this season, it's changing perceptions. And for the teams that haven't figured it out, it looks like there's enough grit left for them, too.
Charles Robinson is the national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send him a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.