The Indianapolis Colts and the USC Trojans are both attempting to accomplish the impossible while being mirror images of one other.
Can the impossible happen twice in the same season? In 2005, during a supposed age of football parity, two dominant teams have a chance to do the unthinkable.
The Indianapolis Colts are four wins away from obtaining the NFL's first 16-0 record. The last team to go undefeated in the NFL, the '72 Miami Dolphins, only needed fourteen games to cap an unbeaten regular season.
The USC Trojans are one victory away from claiming their third consecutive national championship. Winning two straight national championships was considered next to impossible until USC did it last year; winning three straight, forget it.
Both teams have achieved greatness in an age of enforced mediocrity. The salary cap and free agency in the NFL, the 85 scholarship limit in college football, have all leveled the playing field, ensuring that small-market teams in the NFL, and smaller, less tradition-rich schools in college, have a fighting chance.
At least that's the theory. The Colts and the Trojans have basically destroyed the conventional wisdom that dominance has gone the way of the winged T.
Both teams have achieved success in remarkably similar ways. In fact, the Colts and the Trojans are mirror images of each other.
Starting with the obvious, both the Colts and the Trojans feature explosive offenses that are a joy to watch. Led by two all-timers, quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Matt Leinart, both teams have veteran leaders who flawlessly conduct the offense. Neither quarterback is amazingly athletic or mobile but their offenses don't need them to be. Both systems call for smart, heady quarterbacks who can make the right reads and make use of the ridiculous talent in the skill positions.
For the Colts, everyone knows about Marvin Harrison and his extraordinarily productive relationship with Manning, yet this year Reggie Wayne has been the go-to guy because of the constant double coverage Harrison has faced. The Colts simply have too much talent all over the field; if you double-cover one superstar, another superstar will probably be wide open.
The same is true for the Trojans. If you double-cover Biletnikoff finalist Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith will most likely be open. If both of those options aren't available, Leinart usually checks down to his fullback David Kirtman or tight end Dominique Byrd, two explosive playmakers in their own right.
Oh yeah, defenses also usually keep an eye on #5, this year's sure-fire lock Heisman winner Reggie Bush.
It is running backs like Reggie Bush and LenDale White for the Trojans and Edgerrin James for the Colts who are actually the keys to both offenses. With opponents often dropping back eight, nine defenders to protect against the pass, both teams have had a field day running the ball.
In fact, Colts fans and radio talking heads, were wondering if there was something wrong with Peyton Manning at the beginning of the season. Instead of throwing the ball all over the field, the Colts resembled an old NFC Central team by pounding the ball and winning games 10-3 and 13-6.
There wasn't anything wrong with Manning, of course; the Colts were simply taking what the defenses were giving them. "You dare us to run? Okay, here's the Edge. 27 times. How do you like that?"
As teams realized that perennial All Pro Edgerrin James is actually pretty good, they started to creep up their safeties, playing the run. The result? More Colts-like 45-28, 38-20 victories.
USC found itself in a similar situation in Tempe against Arizona State. Down by 18 at the half and the Sun Devils' defense stifling Leinart's passing attack, the Trojans unleashed their tailbacks, rushing for 373 yards. The Trojans ultimately won that game by 10 points by almost exclusively running the ball.
It is that type of versatility that makes both offenses so special — and so potent. They can beat you like the '99 St. Louis Rams or the '95 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Pick your poison. "We can play any type of game that we have to," Manning has said, and he's right.
There is no such thing as a perfect football team, of course, and both teams have flaws in the same places, most notably on defense. Neither defense is poor — far from it. They are not immune to laying an egg every now and then, however. The Colts did just that, giving up 37 to the Bengals in a wild shoot-out. For their part, the Trojans nearly blew their then 33-game winning streak by surrendering 42 to Fresno State. In both games, the offenses had to carry the day, matching the opposition score for score, not exactly a recipe for greatness.
Ironically, both teams are coached by former defensive coordinators, Tony Dungy and Pete Carroll: two men who have built their reputations on dominating, ball-hawking defenses. Both men hate the thought of being involved in anything resembling a shoot-out, yet there they are, trying to outscore the other team, hoping their defense has enough gas left in the tank.
Watching these teams, you get the sense that Dungy and Carroll stumbled into coaching such dominant offenses. Which is another reason why both teams are flirting with history. Both coaches know when the defenses are skidding out of control and how to correct the problems. A coach like Mike Martz would shrug his shoulders and keep bombing away, simply hoping to outscore the other guy.
So ultimately, which accomplishment, should they both come to fruition, is more impressive?
The level of competition the Colts face week in, week out is impossibly rough. The idea of an undefeated NFL 16-game season has previously been thought impossible because the teams are just too good, too evenly matched. Eventually, the inevitable will catch up to a great NFL team. It happened to the '85 Bears. It happened to the Montana-led 49ers and the great Steel Curtain-era Pittsburgh Steelers. There are just too many good teams in the NFL.
On the other hand, USC has played maybe nine or 10 teams that have had a realistic shot of beating them during their 34-game winning streak. They haven't faced anywhere near the week-in-week-out level of competition the Colts have faced.
Still, 34 games in a row? Three straight national championships? Two straight undefeated seasons?
The Trojans have beaten some very tough, quality opponents: Michigan, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Cal, Oregon, and Notre Dame. A slightly lesser team could have easily lost half, maybe all of those games. No college team has ever found itself in this position before. The scary thought is, if USC defeats Texas in the Rose Bowl, the Trojans will be well on their way to their next ridiculous accomplishment: breaking Oklahoma's untouchable 47-game unbeaten record.
Ultimately, the question might be moot because there's a very, very good chance that the Colts won't go undefeated. Their streak could end this Sunday against a very good Jacksonville team. If the Colts don't falter this weekend, they still have to beat two excellent teams: the Chargers and the Seahawks.
They will also have to battle their own Super Bowl expectations. Is it really worth risking the health of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison chasing a record that is essentially meaningless if they don't win the big dance?
Absolutely, emphatically yes. It is a crime to turn your back on greatness and that's exactly what the Colts would be doing if they dogged it the last couple of games of the season.
History remembers the dynasties, the incredible teams that won three or four Super Bowls over a five-, six-year span. History remembers Lombardi's Packers, the Steelers, the 49ers; the New England Patriots have recently joined that elite list. The Colts, like the Trojans, have a chance to accomplish the unthinkable. Whether they have the guts to pursue greatness will go a long way in establishing their legacy.
The Trojans, of course, never had the luxury of taking a game off. Maybe the NFL isn't so tough after all.