INDIANAPOLIS – As Tony Dungy saw it, change wasn't necessary.
And just because it was likely few outside Indianapolis – outside the organization, really – shared that feeling, and just because there had been tough times during the season, didn't make it less true.
Dungy, then in his fifth season as the Colts' head coach, said throughout the 2006 regular season that whatever difficulties there were on defense weren't going to be improved by major overhauls in approach, personnel or even philosophy.
But he did insist one thing all along:
That the Colts' defense would indeed improve.
He said it before the first playoff game, too.
And while few believed him on that, either, following a 23-8 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at the RCA Dome in early January 2007 there was plenty of evidence to suggest he was right – impressive, statistical evidence.
And the Colts?
They liked what they saw.
“Our defense was awesome today,” Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said after the Colts moved into the AFC Divisional Playoff round, where they would visit the Baltimore Ravens.
Awesome? That was one word to describe it.
Impenetrable. Stunningly effective.
Those were other words, and they all fit, because against the Chiefs in downtown Indianapolis that afternoon in early January 2007, the Colts not only took their first step in what would be a remarkably memorable post-season, they did so in dominant fashion.
Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher during the 2006 regular season, rushed for just 32 yards on the Colts' defense, and even that didn't reflect the Colts' defense's dominance.
But this did:
The Chiefs didn't produce a first down in the first half, and didn't get their first of the game until 3:44 remained in the third quarter.
They produced just 126 total yards. For the entire game.
"We heard it all about having the worst defense," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said after the victory over the Chiefs. “Now we can hear this: We have the best run defense in the playoffs.”
Freeney had two of the Colts' four sacks, and the Colts also registered two interceptions. The Chiefs finished with 16 first-half yards.
Those statistics are impressive for any team, but the Colts throughout the 2006 season had developed a reputation as a team struggling defensively and although they had started the season 9-0 and won a fourth consecutive AFC South title, they had finished 32nd in the NFL rushing defense.
The Colts not only lost four of their final seven games, they lost three times on the road in the AFC South, including a 44-17 loss at Jacksonville in which they allowed the Jaguars 375 yards rushing.
And while many covering the Colts locally and nationally made that a theme throughout the end of the regular season and in the week leading to the Chiefs game, Dungy and the Colts remained confident the defense would improve, particularly against the run.
Entering the Chiefs game, two personnel changes had been made in recent weeks, with safety Bob Sanders – a 2005 Pro Bowl selection – returning from a knee injury that cost him 12 games and with linebacker Rob Morris moving into the starting lineup on the outside.
But while Sanders, and to a lesser degree Morris, received much of the credit for the Colts' marked improvement against the Chiefs and the rest of the Colts' playoff opponents, Dungy said the truth was the same – and extended beyond an impressive performance against Kansas City:
The Colts' defense as a whole simply played better, more fundamentally sound.
“I thought our defense came out and played with a lot of energy,” Dungy said. “Larry Johnson is as impressive on film as anybody you’re going to see. And our guys just rose to the challenge. Obviously, Bob Sanders made a difference in there with his energy. I think we just played better. We played faster.
“That was the way we had hoped to play all year and we picked a good time to play that way.”
With the defense dominant, the Colts controlled the momentum much of the game.
The Colts took a 9-0 halftime lead with three field goals by
The Colts all-but clinched the victory on the ensuing possession, driving 71 yards on nine plays with Manning capping the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to
An interception by Sanders ended what essentially was Kansas City's final chance with just over six minutes remaining. And if Dungy weren't among those surprised, that didn't mean the significance of the victory – or of the defense's performance – was lost on the head coach.
“I’m proud of our team, the way we played today,” Dungy said. “I’m excited. Playoff games are hard to win. This is a good win for us. Offensively, we moved the ball. We controlled it. We talked all week about not turning it over. With these guys, that’s how they thrive, on take-a-ways. They got a couple and then they stopped us at the one yard-line, so it was a little bit nerve-racking. At halftime, we had controlled the ball so much but only had the nine points, but I thought our guys did a good job of not getting frustrated.
“I thought our defense, when we did have the turnovers, they rose to the challenge. It was a good team win.”
And the best in that vein was still to come.