But from start to finish, for all those minutes the cause looked lost — and even those few at the end when it was nearly, incredibly, improbably rescued — Dungy never let his emotions leave that narrow corner of his soul to which he’d banished them.
He was no different, not in public, anyway, when this odyssey of a season was finally done.
“We’ll survive. Personally, there were a couple of big disappointments,” the Colts coach said after yet another championship pursuit came up short, this time in a 21-18 loss to the Steelers.
Then Dungy paused.
“Obviously, though,” he added a moment later, “this one doesn’t rank anywhere near the last one.”
All of Indy felt that way Sunday.
What began as a promising season and then turned into a quest for a perfect one took a tragic detour three weeks ago with the apparent suicide of Dungy’s 18-year-old son, James. All the tough talk about this being the Colts team that would bring long-suffering Indianapolis its Super Bowl title was suddenly muted.
For a while, no one knew what to say. His players struggled to strike the right tone about going back to work in earnest, or else tiptoed around the idea that winning it all would somehow heal a wound that was so painful and still so fresh.
And yet, there was so much anticipation.
But the Colts, reflecting Dungy’s quiet leadership, handled it in typically mature fashion. They weren’t looking for excuses, before or afterward.
“We had the table set the way we wanted it,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “Top seed in the AFC, home field, three weeks rest. Everything was laid out in front of us.”
And then it was all snatched away, not once but twice. After playing smart and punishing enough to win comfortably, the Steelers tried to punch in a final score from the 2 with 80 seconds left when Jerome Bettis coughed up a rare fumble. Harper, whose right leg was injured on a play earlier in the game, scooped it up and returned it to his 42. Five plays later, with Peyton Manning still plagued by inconsistent throws, kicker Mike Vanderjagt stood at the 28 with a chance to send the game into overtime.
“He’s made so many big kicks for us,” Wayne said, “that whenever he steps on the field, you always think that.”
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