Colts, Bears to Open Regular Season at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday Night
INDIANAPOLIS – The difference is all the difference.
The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions, will play in the new, state-of-the-art facility in downtown Indianapolis for the third time on Sunday, September 7. But Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said there is an obvious difference between Sunday's game and the two previous NFL games in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Those were preseason games. The starters played a while, but there was no Peyton Manning, and in one of the games, there were barely any Colts starters. Sunday night is different, because Sunday night, the Colts will play the Chicago Bears on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
A primetime stage. A national television audience. Starters on the field.
Now, the games really matter.
And that's all the difference there can be.
"Now the records count," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said as the Colts (13-3 last season) prepared to play the Bears (7-9, third in the NFC North) in the first regular-season game at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 8 p.m.
"We definitely want to put our best foot forward and start off the season right."
Which is something the Colts have done nearly every season since Dungy's 2002 arrival.
And they have done it no matter how they fared in the preseason.
The Colts, who went 1-4 during the 2008 preseason, are 3-15 in the last four preseasons, but during that same span, they have one of the NFL's best records early in the season – a trend that dates to Dungy's arrival.
Since 2002, the Colts have been one of the NFL's hottest-starting teams, winning 18 of 20 games in September and 35 of 42 games in September and October.
They have lost just one regular-season opener under Dungy – the 2004 opener in Foxboro, Mass., to a Patriots team that finished that season 14-2 and won the Super Bowl – and since that game, the Colts have won 12 consecutive games in September.
The Colts have parlayed the starts into division success. They started 2003 with a 5-0 record, and started 13-0 in 2005, 9-0 in 2006 and 7-0 last season. They never trailed in the division in any of those seasons.
"The only thing better than 1-0 is 2-0 and 3-0," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "We have to go out there and start a run."
Freeney, a Pro Bowl selection from 2003-2005, was one of four high-profile Colts players who were the focus of much speculation throughout the off-season and training camp.
Freeney, the team's all-time sacks leader, missed the last seven weeks of last season with a foot injury, while safety Bob Sanders underwent off-season shoulder surgery and – like Freeney – did not practice or play until the week of the team's third preseason game.
Peyton Manning, the Colts' eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, underwent surgery to remove an infected bursa sac 10 days before training camp and did not play in the regular season. He returned to practice the week of the Colts' last preseason game.
Marvin Harrison, the team's eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, missed 11 games with a knee injury last season and after missing the first preseason game, he played in three preseason games.
All four are expected to play against Chicago, a game that matches the teams that played in the Super Bowl following the 2006 season, a game won by the Colts in a steady rain at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Rookie guard Mile Pollak and three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday are the only players on the Colts' active roster that Dungy said are expected to miss. Guard Ryan Lilja and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List.
Veterans Dan Federkeil and Charlie Johnson could start at guard, Dungy said early this week, with either rookie Steve Justice or Jamey Richard likely starting at center.
"The toughest thing for us is not going to be the injuries we have," Dungy said. "Our guys will do fine. They have (Pro Bowl defensive tackle) Tommie Harris, who they didn't have last time (in the Super Bowl). That will be different for us. It's really just doing your job and executing techniques.
"We have confidence Peyton will get us in the right plays, the plays we should run against the defenses we see."
The Bears game also is a game that matches two teams with similar approaches, both in coaching philosophy and defensive style.
The relationship between Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith and Dungy is well-documented, and was a major theme of Super Bowl XLI, when the duo became the first African-American head coaches in Super Bowl history. Smith coached for Dungy when the latter was the head coach in Tampa Bay from 1996-2001, and the two remain close.
"It's very exciting to me," Dungy said of facing Smith, against whom he is 2-0 – a 2004 regular-season victory and the Super Bowl victory. "It's something I'm proud about. I enjoy watching his teams play.
"You'll never have that satisfaction that you have from beating someone else that you don't know as well, but it's a thrill to me to see his teams play, so it's something I'm going to enjoy."
The storyline goes behind friendship. The Bears under Smith employ the same "Tampa 2" or "Dungy" defense as the Colts, a one-gap, Cover 2-style of defense. Dungy said that similarity could prevent many surprises Sunday.
"They're going to look at that tape (from the Super Bowl) and look at the way things are done," Dungy said. "Both teams are going to play the same style of defense, and both teams' defensive players could probably call the other team's defense. It's really a matter of execution and not a case where we had plays that they didn't know about or they have plays we don't know about.
"They're going to run their plays at a defense they've practice against for four years and we're going to run our plays at a defense we've practiced against for seven years.
"Somebody's going to execute well and win. In the Super Bowl, that was us."
The Bears went 7-9 last season, finishing third in the NFC North and finishing 28th in total defense, allowing 20 points or more 10 times after five such games the previous season.
Kyle Orton, a fourth-year veteran who started 15 games as a rookie in 2005, will start at quarterback against the Colts, with Rex Grossman – the starter in 2006 and at the beginning of last season – entering the season as a backup. Orton, who played collegiately at Purdue, completed 190 of 368 passes for 1,869 yards and nine touchdowns with 13 interceptions as a rookie. He started three games last season, throwing three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Bears went 1-3 in the preseason, and Smith told the team's website this week, "We haven't played well."
"That's the only way you can identify it," Smith said. "I feel like we're going to have an outstanding defense, still, once we get everything in and we get the guys going. . . .
"The mindset changes for everyone, not just us. We know we'll have our full game plan in. We haven't really game-planned for anyone yet. But other teams haven't really game-planned yet either. In this first football game, you'll see exactly where all the teams are. So we're anxious to play with ever