The Damn! Moment of Week 17   Good, bad, ugly from Week 17   MatchSport: Resolutions   Lethal Weapon

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

This opinion might qualify as a Damn! Moment. He wrote what? Preposterous!

No, all too true.

The final Damn! Moment of the NFL regular season involved the backup quarterback for a 5-11 team trying to score against a bunch of second-stringers.

And that Moment just might have decided the Super Bowl.

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I know: You're flagging this columnist for excessive New Year's Eve celebration.

Nope, I stayed in all evening watching Saturday night's Giants-Raiders game and drank nothing stronger than Alka-Seltzer, after watching the mess Norv "Stomach" Turner has made of the Oakland Raiders.

Sunday, I was thinking much straighter than the Indianapolis Colts' brass as I watched the once 13-0 Colts risk losing their third straight game. No team has ever lost its last three and won the Super Bowl. That was the main reason I've been saying for three weeks that Colts general manager Bill Polian sent a terrible message to his team with blasť comments he made on a New York sports radio show before Indy played San Diego.

Polian basically told WFAN hosts Mike Francesca and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo that he didn't expect his team to go undefeated -- nor, he said, did his Colts particularly need to win any of their final three games. Bill "Mad Dog" Polian?

Yes, his team had clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs. And yes, conventional coaching wisdom says you protect and rest your starters after clinching. But with three games left before two weeks off? With a rhythm offense that's more difficult to tune than a Porsche? With an intricately coordinated defense based more on teamwork than star power that had built unexpected momentum through an undefeated season?

And just as important, with a chance to do something that had never been done -- go undefeated through a 16-game regular season?

Of course, the last undefeated team, the 1972 Dolphins, pulled it off in the 14-game era, then went 17-0 winning the Super Bowl. But these Colts are -- or were -- good enough to go 16-0 on the way to 19-0.

These Colts deserved for their management to encourage coach Tony Dungy to give his players a chance to make very-difficult-to-break history. Dungy, who learned much of his football from the coach who wrote the book on conventional wisdom, Chuck Noll, leaned toward playing it safe. But his GM clearly cemented Dungy's instincts.

The starters were allowed to play against visiting San Diego. Yet they played just the way Polian talked -- without passion or urgency. They played their first flat half of the season and fell behind 13-0 in the third quarter. Yes, thanks mostly to Peyton Manning -- who still should be NFL MVP -- the Colts nearly pulled it out.

Nearly.

Thirteen and one.

Then tragedy struck Dungy's family. Dungy missed the next game in Seattle. Yet the starters missed most of it, too, watching the backups lose 28-13.

Thirteen and two.

So as Dungy returned for Sunday's finale in the RCA Dome against Arizona, did management return to its senses and encourage the coach to play his starters for at least a half? No, Dungy played Manning even less than he played at Seattle -- only one series instead of two. Other starters played a couple of series, tops.

At this point, what was the bigger risk? Losing starters to injury? Or completely losing confidence and edge and momentum? The latter, by far.

Remember, we're not talking about the New England Patriots here. These Colts haven't won three Super Bowls in the last four years. They haven't won anything, and deep down, they're not convinced they can win this year's Super Bowl. A third straight loss would have cracked open the locker room door for two endless weeks of creeping self-doubt.

Are we really that good?

Thirteen-and-oh would have started to seem like it was way back in 2005.

And here came Arizona backup quarterback Josh McCown, driving his Cardinals from their 11-yard line late in Sunday's game. The Colts second stringers were hanging on to a 17-13 lead. McCown, playing for an injured Kurt Warner, converted a third down and a fourth down to keep the drive alive.

And from the Colts' 10-yard line, McCown rolled right, cut upfield and -- you're Joshing me -- found what appeared to be Victory Lane. Yes, McCown was about to score what easily could have been the winning touchdown with a minute and a half left when … huh?

As he was hit near the goal line, McCown almost appeared to purposely fumble the ball forward. This kind of play was why McCown -- a big, strong, talented thrower -- lost his starting job. But this time, the loose ball eventually was recovered by Arizona.

Second and goal at the Colts' 2: Marcel Shipp, 1 yard.

Third and goal at the 1: Shipp sunk.

Now it came down to fourth-and-goal at the 1 with 22 seconds left.

And the 6-foot-4, 213-pound McCown tried an abbreviated quarterback draw, taking one step away from center, then hurling himself at the goal line. Both of McCown's feet definitely made it into the end zone before he was blasted by linebacker Larry Tripplett. But did the ball break the plane?

The refs decided it did. One signaled touchdown.

Damn.

Game over? Colts lose a third straight? Dungy's return spoiled?

First, the play had to be routinely reviewed. Dungy rarely has benefited from replay reviews, via challenge or automatic cross-examination inside two minutes.

But this time, the call on the field was overturned. Replays showed that McCown's upper body didn't break the goal-line plane, so neither did the ball -- which McCown fumbled after his progress was stopped short. This time, Indy's Rob Morris recovered.

Colts' ball with 13 seconds left. Colts' game. Dungy suddenly was as lucky as that horseshoe on his Colts' hat. Maybe Somebody Up There likes Dungy after all he has suffered.

This was so much more than the NFL's final Damn! Moment. This overturned play involved the even more crucial Damn! Mo.

As in Momentum.

Colts safety Mike Doss grabbed the ball from the official, ran it over to Dungy and presented it to him as a game ball keepsake. Dungy held it aloft for all the fans to see. The RCA Dome spilled over with feel-good emotion for its grieving coach and its victorious team.

As farfetched as this sounds, keeping McCown out of the end zone was the turning point for the Colts. Dungy's postgame media address would have felt so much more forced and rang empty if he had been trying to sell the game as a "moral victory" for his backups. But Dungy was able to frame Indy 17, Arizona 13 as a "family" portrait that involved every player on the team.

The Colts had to feel good about having their leader back, and their leader had to feel even better about the uplifted spirit of his locker room heading into a bye week. The backups battled their backsides off for Dungy. The Colts' "family" stuck by each other through a tough time.

No, this didn't turn out to be the ideal way to maintain the 13-0 flow. But beating Arizona wound up as important as beating Pittsburgh in the RCA Dome. At this point, beating Mississippi State would have been invaluable to the Colts' battered psyche.

Before the season, I picked the Colts to win the Super Bowl. Now I believe that, by stopping McCown short of the goal line, they regained enough Damn! Mo to win their next three.