INDIANAPOLIS – Conference championship Sundays carry memories of both exhilaration and disappointment for Tony Dungy.
Dungy’s 1999 Tampa Bay team dropped an 11-6 battle with heavily-favored and offensively-potent St. Louis for a berth in Super Bowl XXXIV. The game was not decided until a last-minute Buccaneers drive ended deep in Rams territory.
Dungy’s 2003 Colts were 12-4 and rolled to two playoff wins before dropping a tough 24-14 verdict at New England. It took him three more seasons to reach that moment for a third career time, and he cashed in with a pulsating 38-34 win over New England as Indianapolis took its first lead with one minute to go and intercepted Tom Brady to hold on.
Those dramatic games typify conference championship play, and Dungy finds this the NFL’s best weekend.
“I think it is for drama,” said Dungy. “You have the week off for the Super Bowl for the build up. You seem to lose a little bit of it (drama). For the conference championship games, you have four teams. They all think they can get there. You have four cities that are really fired up. You’ve played these playoffs out now for three weeks, and the emotion is building. Two teams then are just so fired up about going to the Super Bowl.
“I think it is the best weekend of the playoffs. It’s like the Final Four. The championship game is great but when all four teams are there and everyone has the energy, I think it’s something special.”
As Dungy watches Sunday, he will be observing three head coaches who played to this moment last year, while one will be getting there his first time as a field leader.
New England’s Bill Belichick defeated Baltimore’s John Harbaugh on the AFC side last year. San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh lost in last year’s title game, and he faces Atlanta’s Mike Smith, a first-time head coach in this game.
For the Harbaughs, Dungy knows it will be an emotional time.
“For John Harbaugh, this will be the second year in a row, the same circumstances, going back to New England. It’s the same for Jim Harbaugh. They’re both in the championship game,” said Dungy. “You know the mistakes you made the (last) time. You know how close it can be. You feel it’s right in your grasp. You realize how tough it is to get there. You definitely have a stream of emotions going.”
Dungy can related to John Harbaugh since each lost his first two conference championship appearances. Harbaugh’s Ravens also fell to Pittsburgh in 2008. Dungy knows it is difficult for every coach to get that close to the Super Bowl and fall, but he does not remember feelings in Tampa Bay that he and the Bucs would not get back to that moment.
“At that point, you don’t (think you won’t get back),” said Dungy. “The first time you say, ‘We came up a little bit short. We’re going to come back and do everything we can. We have a great team returning. We’ll get back and win it next year.’ That’s your thought.
“That ‘next year’ for me took seven years. When (you lose) the second time, you thought, ‘These are so hard to get to.’ It’s so tough when you come up a little short. The second time I thought, ‘When will we get another chance to get back here?’
“It’s really a tremendous blow when you lose a championship game. You realize how much work went into getting there. You’re on the doorstep of getting to the Super Bowl. As disappointed as you are, you realized you have to go back to work and do that much work and more to get back to that same spot. It’s kind of crushing when you lose those games.”
Indianapolis bounced back after losing in 2003, but fell in the Divisional Playoffs in 2004 and 2005. Dungy was able to ease those feelings when Indianapolis advanced to Super Bowl XLI.
“When we finally did win in 2006, you think about all the disappointments,” said Dungy. “You think about how hard it is just to get to that point. When you realize you’re going to the Super Bowl, it’s quite a feeling.
“I remember being in the RCA Dome and not wanting to leave. All the fans were staying for the trophy presentation. You wish you could stay there all night. You do realize how hard it is to get there.”