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ON FOOTBALL

Colts are hoping to break out

Roger Staubach has been through it. Steve Young has been through it. Even John Elway, of all people, has been through it.

Mike Shanahan has been through it. John Madden has been through it. Even Tom Landry, of all people, has been through it.

None of them, it was said, could ''win the big one." At least not until they had a team good enough to do it. Then they did it, and that was the end of what was a rather nonsensical premise to begin with.

Yet that hasn't precluded the same debate from continuing today with two new names. These days it's Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy who are the subject of that tired staple of critics who can't seem to see or understand anything but the outcome of the last game. These days they are the quarterback and coach who supposedly ''can't win the big one."

The absurdity of such a concept is obvious to some but not to all because for some people the only outcome that defines an athlete or a coach is the score of the season's final game. The title game is all that matters. Everything else is merely prelude, which makes one wonder why they bother with the rest of the season.

The importance of all the other games is minimized until it can go all but unnoticed by some that Manning has become the most productive and prolific passer in the game or that Dungy is not only the winningest coach in the league the past six seasons (71-32) but more importantly has taken seven of the nine teams he's led to the playoffs, first rebuilding a perennial loser in Tampa and then doing much the same in Indianapolis with a Colts team that had slipped to 6-10 after two straight playoff seasons under Jim Mora.

The Colts hadn't won a playoff game since 1995 until Dungy and Manning led them to what became an AFC Championship Game loss against the Patriots in 2003. That defeat was the beginning to a new chapter in the book entitled ''[Fill in the blank] Can't Win The Big One" because it was the continuation of what has become an ongoing string of frustration and defeat for Manning and a burgeoning one for Dungy, whose Colts teams are 0-4 against New England since he arrived in Indianapolis.

Manning, as has been well-documented in these parts, is 2-10 lifetime against the Patriots and 0-7 against them in Foxborough, including a dismal performance in a 20-3 playoff loss here in January that only served to further drive home the contention that in the biggest games Manning comes up small.

There is one way Manning and Dungy can alter all this tonight. They can win, but to do that they need to remember that this is not ''the big one." This is anything but ''the big one." This is just one of 16. Just another game on another night. Nothing more.

It is a ''Monday Night Football" game, and a game that for the next 24 hours will be the focus of everyone even remotely interested in what goes on around the NFL. But it is no more than that. A victory does not remove the ''can't win the big one" monkey from their backs, although it would at least throw aside the ''can't win at Razor Blade Field" argument for the moment.

Dungy understands and accepts his fate in all this. He keeps in perspective better than most of the men who share his profession what the meaning of any one victory or defeat really is, feeling the pain of losing as much as anyone but knowing it is a game, after all. It is his profession, and that gives victory and defeat more meaning, but, in the end, these are football games and he and Manning have won 41 of the 56 they've shared with the Colts. Must there not have been at least one ''big one" in there somewhere?

''I don't think you get psyched out by that," Dungy said last week when asked if his team is at the point at which seeing the Elvis logo on the Patriots' helmets is all it takes for it to have a meltdown.

''We had the same situation before in a lot of different ways with supposedly Tennessee, who had our number, or their style of play was such that we weren't going to be able to beat them. Then it was playoff games that this team hadn't won. None of that really matters; it is how you play on that particular day.

''We want it to be a big game and hopefully we are going to play a lot of big games in the second half of the year . . . [but] it is one game. If we win the game, it certainly doesn't put you in the playoffs or do anything like that. It really doesn't mean anything more for us than we will be 8-0. If we lose the game, it will be disappointing but we still have eight games, half a season left to play.

''What I talk about is how you have to play to win each particular game. We know some things that you have to do against New England to win. You use the history and the past . . . the games that we have turned the ball over more than they have, we have lost. The games that we have turned it over the same amount of times or less, we've won. Those are the things that you talk about and how you have to go into a ballgame and what you have to take away. The fact of what happened [in Foxborough] really is irrelevant."

True, yet Dungy understands that when you have lost seven straight in a place, as Manning's teams have in Foxborough, or even three straight, as his have since he took over the Colts, assumptions will be made about you. Attention will be paid, and it will not be favorable.

Manning always has denied he feels the pressure of facing a Bill Belichick designed defense, and he may not, but if the Colts are to find a way to avoid another close shave at the Big Razor there is one thing they must do. Since Dungy's arrival in Indianapolis the Colts are a plus-32 in turnover ratio. During that time only the Chiefs, at plus-34, have been better.

Yet in games against the Patriots, the Colts have been minus-23, including a minus-6 in the last two playoff meetings. That has been the biggest reason Manning and Dungy have become the latest, but surely not the last, quarterback and coach to see their many successes overwhelmed by the outcomes against one team.

''What we're trying to do is keep the best record in the AFC. We're trying to stay three games ahead of Jacksonville. That is the significance of this game for us. We can finish up the halfway point three games ahead in our division and at least two games up on everybody else in the AFC. That is why this is a big game to us."

A big game but not yet ''the big game." That will come two months from now if Dungy, Manning, and the Colts are lucky. If they aren't, it will come some other year, but it will come for them as it did for Elway and Landry. Until then, all they can do is play their best and then hope for the best.

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