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Dungy living up to advance billing

INDIANAPOLIS -- He is close now. But Tony Dungy has been close before, falling one game short of the Super Bowl twice, including last year's AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots.

The breakthrough for the coach of the Indianapolis Colts is coming.

From 1999 through this season, Dungy's teams at Tampa Bay and Indianapolis have compiled a 64-32 record. No coach in the NFL has a better record, although Dungy agrees that winning titles, not games, is the benchmark for success.

Yet the path Dungy has followed is clear, dating back 20 years, when at 29, he was the youngest coordinator (defensive) in the NFL, with the Steelers. Twelve years later, after stops as an assistant in Kansas City and Minnesota, the stage was set for the next plateau, as head coach of the Buccaneers. His Bucs made the playoffs four times in six years, and were one step from reaching the Super Bowl in 1999, losing, 11-6, to the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship game.

Now, after an AFC title game appearance last season and being one win from returning this season, Dungy has set expectations -- and accomplishments -- higher.

Beating the Patriots Sunday and winning the AFC Championship could be regarded as the true measure of success.

When asked about it, Dungy hedged. "It probably depends on what happens and how we play," said Dungy as he prepared his team for Sunday's epic matchup. "If we play well and get beaten, I'll probably think it was a good year. If we don't play our best and get beaten, it will be a disappointment. I was disappointed last year because I thought we had a Super Bowl-caliber team. We played well and didn't play best in the last game. So, was it a good year? It was, but it was still disappointing. If we play a different type of game and lose that last game of the year, I'd probably be happy if we were playing our best and just got beat."

The how-you-play-the-game theory can be gratifying, if not ultimately successful, in the big picture. And Patriots coach Bill Belichick has taken notice.

"I think when you look at his teams, they are sound," Belichick said earlier this week. "They don't make many mistakes and they make you beat them. They have a huge turnover differential. That is not uncommon for his teams. They don't give the ball up very easily, they don't give up a lot of big plays, they make you earn it."

Dungy's teams seldom make game-altering mistakes and are among the least penalized teams in the NFL. As a head coach, Dungy has never had a team that finished lower than 10th in penalties. De-

fense is where Dungy made his mark, although the Colts' overwhelming offense is challenging Dungy's defense-first reputation. But in 23 seasons as a coach, Dungy's defensive units have scored 66 touchdowns. The Colts, however, say Dungy is more than a defensive coach, and the numbers don't lie -- the Colts scored a league-high 522 points this season.

"It's funny because [defense is] kind of the word on him," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "But I'll tell you, he equally spends time with the offense and even especially with the quarterbacks, as he does with the defense. He's not the defensive coordinator, but I really enjoy the input that Coach Dungy has had with me because he and I will watch film together and I can ask him, `Coach, what do you think the defense is doing right here?' or `What do you think they'll do against this look?' because he has such excellent knowledge of defenses.

"There are many defenses copying his style of defense. He can give me that insight to the defense and he's really been able to help our offense a lot and help me out as a quarterback a lot. He was an ex-quarterback [at the University of Minnesota] in college and like I said, he's been a defensive coach his whole career, but his knowledge of defenses really helps out with our offense."

But Dungy does more than X's and O's. It's an attitude. "We have taken on the personality of our coach," said tight end Marcus Pollard. "We didn't get real high on big wins and we didn't get real low on games we lost that we thought we should have won. He doesn't go up and down."

Dungy concedes having an offense led by the NFL MVP has helped in terms of defensive and offensive orientation.

"There is that feeling on offense here of, `Hey, we're going to score,' " Dungy said. "We're going to get between 350 and 400 yards and we're going to score between 24 and 35 points on most days. We feel like we're going to do that if we don't self-destruct and don't turn it over.

"The one difference is when you're a defensive-oriented team you feel like you can control things a bit more. Maybe on offense, you get some bad breaks on some tipped balls or you have a couple of fumbles, but basically, with our guys, they feel like if they don't score 28 it's not a good day for us. You kind of know your team and what you are. That's what you plan. You play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses." 

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