Colts seek second helping of respect

MIAMI -- They all squeezed into a private room at a downtown Indianapolis steakhouse two years ago, a frustrated team eager to hold a players-only meeting. The Colts easily could have held the session at their training facility, but quarterback Peyton Manning wanted a different setting that night. His team was 3-4 at the time. The Colts were looking like they couldn't hang with the NFL's elite any longer. So Manning figured some good conversation over thick cuts of meat and stiff drinks could help the Colts solve their problems.

When the Indianapolis players look back on that evening, they say it wasn't a rousing speech or a flurry of gripes that brought them closer. Instead, it was a variety of more subtle moments that did the trick: the way Manning worked the room, the jokes that were told, the ease with which new players and veterans made the effort to get to know each other better.

"It was all about our team bonding at a time when a lot of things were going wrong for us," said Colts safety Melvin Bullitt. "Whatever the formula was that came out of that meeting, it certainly worked for us. Because we started our [NFL-record 23-game] winning streak right after that and we've been rolling ever since."

What the Colts learned that night was that every great team has to reinvent itself eventually. And all they've done since is prove why they still have the goods to be as dominant as any franchise in their era. Along with that winning streak, the Colts have carved out plenty of space in the record books this season, including most wins by a team in a decade (115) and most consecutive 12-win seasons (seven). Now comes the next major challenge in the shaping of the Indianapolis legacy: Sunday's matchup with the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints are the feel-good story of this event, a franchise looking to erase a long history of mostly miserable football with its first championship. The Colts, on the other hand, are seeking their second title in four years and a chance to quiet whatever critics still question this team. See, despite all the respect they've earned with their accomplishments -- "The number of games that they have won over the last decade is just remarkable, really, and maybe even unprecedented," said Saints executive vice president Mickey Loomis -- the Colts have never been celebrated in the same fashion as other championship teams of this era. The bottom line: Indianapolis needs multiple titles to rank with the best franchises ever.

Even the Colts acknowledge that history will remember them differently if they add a second Super Bowl win to the title they won during the 2006 season.

"People sometimes do overlook what we've done here, and a lot of that is because of our past playoff failures," said Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, in reference to postseason losses to New England (2003 and '04), Pittsburgh (2005) and San Diego (2007 and '08). "People look at those things and it might take away from what we've done in the regular season. But when you look at our consistency, it is amazing. It speaks to the level of what we've built here."

Added Colts owner Jim Irsay: "There's no question about the importance of what this means to us. The legacy in terms of getting a second [title] and being able to be a two-time world champion and separate yourself from some other franchises that have won one -- it's a big thing."

This season has given people even more reasons to understand why the Colts have been so dominant for so long. They've thrived despite the retirement of former head coach Tony Dungy and the insertion of his handpicked successor, Jim Caldwell. They've won with key starters sidelined with injuries (such as wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez and Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders). Whenever something bad happens to this team, they find a way to rebound quickly from the adversity.

That success has plenty to do with the keen eye Colts president/general manager Bill Polian has for finding talented players. But it also is the result of the kind of chemistry that grew during that dinner in October 2008. Aside from a small group of stars -- including Manning, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and defensive end Dwight Freeney -- Indianapolis is filled with a collection of blue-collar types, many of whom were doubted on their way into the league. They know their roles, believe in their system and do their best to hang tight, whether at community-oriented functions or the annual spring barbecue that Manning holds at his suburban Indianapolis home.

Older players said this supportive culture evolved after the 2002 season, when, as defensive end Raheem Brock said, "We got rid of a lot of guys who were more worried about doing their own thing." But Caldwell said Dungy's seven-year tenure with the team also created a noticeable resolve, one that has helped the Colts set a league record with seven fourth-quarter comeback wins this year.

"[Dungy] talked about poise quite often, and I think our guys bought into that," Caldwell said. "They bought into it because he embodied that poise and that confidence, and it had a trickle-down effect."

"If you look at our playoff schedule and our postseason, this has been a team season," Manning said. "Different guys have stepped up along the way to make critical plays at critical times. Whether it has been Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Gary Brackett, Antoine Bethea, Matt Stover or Pat McAfee, it has been different guys along the way. That is how I feel this game is going to turn out. It will be somebody stepping up along the way, in a critical situation, and making a play. And you never know just who it might be."

Still, the Colts understand that being favored in this Super Bowl doesn't mean they will end up victorious. As has been the case for most of the season, they will have to deal with another challenge to their depth, this one being a sprained right ankle that has made Freeney's potential impact in the game questionable. The Saints also relish being the underdog and having a chance to bring a title to a city still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. On top of all that, the New Orleans players have remained loose and confident throughout the week. You'd never know this was their first time on the big stage.

When the team arrived Monday, head coach Sean Payton and a number of Saints Pro Bowl players -- who had come in on Sunday for the all-star game -- dressed as bellhops to meet the buses. It was a move that set the tone for a team that knows what a victory could do for themselves and their fans.

"We don't look at [playing for the city] as extra pressure," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees. "We look at it as a sense of responsibility. We really gain strength from our fans, from the Who Dat Nation [and] from the people of New Orleans, just knowing that their spirit is with us."

The Colts will counter that emotional edge with something just as effective: experience. They have 25 players left from the team that won Super Bowl XLI right here in Miami, and some of those veterans recently have spoken about their championship memories. Wayne offered his insights. So did kicker Adam Vinatieri (who also has three Super Bowl rings from his days with New England) and defensive line coach John Teerlinck (who also won two titles with the Denver Broncos). They all emphasized the same point, that there is no telling how many more chances anybody will get at a Super Bowl ring.

What's even more difficult to do is achieve a substantial place in history. The Colts spent the first part of the decade hearing about how they couldn't win big games. Now they stand poised to be remembered as one of the most dominant teams of any era. They still have arguably the game's best quarterback competing in his prime and enough young talent to keep this team strong for another five years.

The question is whether the Saints can derail that dream Sunday. If they can't, then the Colts should get a final measure of respect that is normally reserved for teams with at least two Super Bowl wins. Though Manning doesn't like thinking about that possibility right now -- "There is enough pressure to win the game as it is," he said -- Irsay has pondered the topic lately. Earlier this week, Irsay openly talked about what could have been if his team hadn't lost to New England and Pittsburgh in the years those teams won Super Bowls.

Back then, the Colts had to wait patiently for a chance to accomplish what those squads achieved. On Sunday, they get another chance to remind people of how far they've come.

"Literally, we may have been to four Super Bowls if we were in the other conference," Irsay said. "At the same time, winning the world championship is what it's about, and I've said it before: You scratch and claw, you're 100 feet from the top of Mount Everest and you know only one person's going to make it and the other person's going to fall down to the bottom. It's something to us that means a lot, getting the second world championship. There's no doubt about it."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.