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Colts calmly riding out a perfect storm

WashPost: Indianapolis staying cool in chase of perfection and 1972 Dolphins

Outside, the storm pressure rose and the sky thickened into an impending gray, but inside their windowless locker room the Indianapolis Colts couldn't see out, and didn't care to. In a corner, three Colts sat and played a slow, thoughtful game of cards. Periodically, one of them flopped a card down and swept a trick off the table, tapped it neatly, and put it in a rising pile.

Nearby, wide receiver Reggie Wayne sprawled in a folding chair, watching the card game progress. The stack of tricks mounted with a slick, rhythmic slap of hearts and spades. Wayne thought aloud that he'd never been close to undefeated at anything in his life. "Not even in that game of Casino over there," he said.

At his feet, the room was littered with discarded clothing, loose Thinsulate sweats, and fleecy, swaddling warmups, which had been carelessly dropped in front of lockers in favor of practice gear. As they waited for workouts to start, various Colts were draped around the complex in attitudes so casual they could almost have been mistaken for empty garments.

Outside the locker room, history was looming like the mid-winter snowstorm. The can-they-do-it question was ceaselessly intoned on every network and radio station, the garrulous commentators screaming from the big screens. The tension of it sent your neck up to your ears: Will the Colts win out their last three games and go 16-0? Can they surpass the 1972 Miami Dolphins and be the first team in more than 30 years to finish the NFL regular season unbeaten? Or should they discreetly rest their starters for the playoffs and perhaps take a loss?

But history didn't seem to weigh on the Colts locker room the way it should. You waited for some telltale tension, a certain grim expression or querulous tone. Instead, what you heard, and felt, was a kind of mental quiet. Three games left. San Diego, Seattle, Arizona. It was a counting quiet that went with the tick and slap of a card game. It was the sound, maybe, of focus.

"You could have played that 8," someone said.

That's when you realized they weren't listening to the nonsense.

"Our focus is not on the record, that's a guarantee," Wayne said. "We're trying to get to the big dance, that's the main thing. This record's just in the way. We're winning, we're having fun. Our opponents, I think, they're the guys who are sick of it."

In Coach Tony Dungy's office, the messages were accruing, and so were the helpful suggestions. Reggie Jackson called. "I'm pretty good at going through a stretch run and being at my best in the playoffs," Jackson said. "So if you need any advice, call me." Dungy made a note of it. "That's on my to-do list," he said.

Some of Dungy's fellow coaches have grown superstitious on his behalf. New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards sent a roundabout message, via his wife Lia, to say that he wouldn't be calling. Edwards is sure that he's cursed after losing his starting quarterback Chad Pennington and running back Curtis Martin to injuries, and he's unwilling to pass the jinx on to Dungy. "He said we can't talk, because their karma has been so bad that I might catch it on the telephone," Dungy said laughing.

Other friends have called, solicitous and concerned. "How are you making it through all this?" they asked.

The answer is, Dungy is as relaxed as his sweat clothes. After practice, he leaned against a wall in the Colts indoor practice facility, his arms folded over a baggy blue tunic and slightly mismatching billowing pants. "I am loving it," he said. "I mean, I promise you. Because we've done it the other way. We've been 3-4 and had to win every game down the stretch. And this is a lot easier."

Dungy wasn't even aware of the growing outside preoccupation with their record until just two games ago. On Dec. 4 they played the Tennessee Titans at home. Dungy rose early for the pregame meal, and as he dug into his breakfast, he glanced at the big-screen TVs. For the next hour, every sports talk show and every commentator obsessed on the Colts. "Outside the Lines." "The Sports Reporters." All the pregame shows. "It was every show," he said. "And that's the first time it hit me, because we were not thinking that way at all. I said, 'Wow.' This is a national deal."

Not even his predicament over whether to play or rest his starters seems to have stressed Dungy. What has been a matter of raging national debate is mildly reduced by Dungy to a matter of simple, game-by-game calculations: San Diego, Seattle, Arizona.

"We'll talk a little bit about the pulse of the team and where we are," he said. "But the big thing is, it's still the head coach trying to gauge that fine line you walk, to continue to improve, to continue to practice hard, to play enough to stay sharp, and play well, but not to get fatigued."

Outside the weather grew worse, but inside the Colts' hangar-like complex, the synthetic turf was green and weirdly lush underfoot. The Colts were insulated physically, and mentally. "You don't know if you'll ever get a run like this again, so enjoy it," Dungy said. "We all know we're not going to live and die on an undefeated regular season. So don't let it bother you. Enjoy the questions, enjoy the media, enjoy the national spotlight, and enjoy everybody talking about the Colts. Because it may not happen again."

Back in the steam-warmed and littered Colts locker room, something else lay on the floor, among the cards and clothing and flotsam. It was another counting game. A backgammon set. The pieces were moved three quarters of the way around the board. But the game was unfinished.