Blue and white Christmas lights adorn the trees and illuminate the main building at the Indianapolis Colts' training facility. But these days, there's a different sort of warm glow around this overachieving football team from a national spotlight shining on a franchise that had won only six games over the previous two years.
The Colts, 3-13 each of the past two seasons, are 11-2 and have clinched a playoff berth. A victory Sunday at the suddenly rocking and raucous RCA Dome against the 8-5 Washington Redskins would give them the title in the AFC East, arguably the strongest division in the league.
Their sudden success has stunned most of the preseason pundits, and league personnel as well. Coach Jim Mora admits he was "amazed" when the Colts started putting together what has become a nine-game winning streak that's two short of a club record.
"We've won enough now that I'm not as amazed as I was earlier in the year," he said. "I know our team better, and I've seen them do things that lead me to believe we're a good team, and we can beat other good teams. But heck yes, I didn't think we'd win 11 games. If you'd said that at the start of the season, I'd say I'll take it and not even have bothered to play.
"I just looked at the division. Two teams [the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets] were being talked about for the Super Bowl. We've got a second-year quarterback, a rookie running back, a new defensive system with a new defensive coordinator. We had an awful lot of question marks."
With three games remaining, the Colts have answered most, if not all, the questions about themselves. Their two losses, against the New England Patriots and Miami, came in games in which they had fourth-quarter leads. They haven't lost since their fourth game, when the Dolphins scored 25 fourth-quarter points to win 34-31 and drop the Colts to 2-2.
Since then, they've won from in front and from behind--the latest example being a 30-second drive that led to a game-winning 53-yard field goal at the final gun against Miami two weeks ago. They've won with a diverse offense, sturdy defense and a place kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, who has made his last 20 field goal attempts.
They've also won with virtually a brand new football team from the day team president Bill Polian arrived in December 1997. Polian was the architect of four straight Super Bowl teams as the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, then put together an expansion team in Carolina that made it to the NFC championship game in its second season in 1996.
Only 12 players remain from the team Polian inherited after the Colts fired general manager Bill Tobin and coach Lindy Infante. Polian is a methodical, no-nonsense native New Yorker whose outbursts of temper are legendary any place he's ever thrown a tantrum. But he's also one of the NFL's best at picking players and coaches.
Just as he did in Buffalo and Carolina, he has constructed the Colts with a blend of draft choices, unrestricted free agents and holdover talent. He said the Colts "still lack a couple of components [on defense] to really be great," but in a season when there may not be a dominant team, the Colts could be as good as anyone.
"He's willing to do what it takes, and he gives you everything you need," Mora said. "He's a hard worker, tough, smart, determined. I'm very lucky to have a great owner [Jim Irsay] and a great general manager."
Polian hired Mora, the only successful head coach in New Orleans Saints history, because he liked his teaching skills and his reputation for discipline. With the Colts having young players at the skill positions, Polian felt Mora was the perfect fit even if he had been out of coaching for two years.
"He's the reason we've become the team we are now," Polian said. "He coaches consistently. He's not halfway about anything, and we needed that. The focus and the professionalism and discipline he brought us are the things Jim Irsay told me we needed when we were looking for a coach. And he's impervious to pressure."
The same clearly can be said for Polian.
With the first pick in the 1998 draft, Polian agonized until the day before the draft before deciding to take Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. It's a decision that now looks brilliant in every way, from Manning's almost immediate leap into elite status among NFL quarterbacks to Leaf's fall to third-teamer in San Diego.
Polian also made the decision to trade away popular running back Marshall Faulk, whose likeness hung on a banner in front of the RCA Dome last year. Faulk was making noise about wanting a huge contract and threatening to hold out. At 27, Faulk also had considerable wear and tear on his body, though it hardly shows this season in St. Louis, where he leads the NFL in total yards.
Polian decided to roll the dice and, after trading Faulk, he knew exactly the man he wanted weeks before the draft. He also knew it wouldn't be a popular decision, especially coupled with the Faulk trade.
With quarterbacks taken by the three teams drafting ahead of the Colts, Polian could have used the fourth overall choice on Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams, who was then college football's all-time leading rusher.
But Polian drafted Miami running back Edgerrin James, whose numbers were not nearly as impressive to the casual fan, even if everyone in the NFL felt James and Williams were draft-day equals.
"For us, we thought he'd fit better with Peyton and had the capacity to make big plays in the passing game," Polian said. "It's not that Ricky had bad hands, but we didn't need a guy to carry the ball 30 times a game. Edgerrin could do that, too, but we've got a great pass offense, and Edgerrin was better suited to that."
Polian and Mora made more critical moves. Rusty Tillman, a former linebacker with the Redskins, was fired after one year as defensive coordinator and replaced by Vic Fangio, a long-time assistant to Mora who had been under contract in Carolina until Dom Capers and his staff were fired after last season.
Polian then began to overhaul a defense he admits lacked talent. That defense now has five new starters. Polian also signed free agent Cornelius Bennett, a 13-year veteran he had drafted for the Bills. Bennett, who played in five Super Bowls, now leads the team in tackles and inspirational speeches.
Safety Chad Cota's signing as an unrestricted free agent from New Orleans helped solidify the secondary, and defensive end Chad Bratzke left the New York Giants and has nine sacks from his defensive right end spot. The Colts also start a rookie at outside linebacker, second-round pick Mike Peterson, who had a key fourth-quarter sack of New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe in a 20-15 victory on Sunday.
The Colts offense has drawn raves all year, especially the triple threat of Manning directing the league's fourth-best offense, James leading the AFC in total yards and wide receiver Marvin Harrison leading the NFL with 88 catches.
The challenge for Polian will be to keep this group together for as long as possible in the era of free agency movement and salary cap constrictions. Manning has four years remaining on his original contract, and Polian expects him to be the quarterback for the next 15 years. James signed a five-year contract and also will be around for a while. Polian says he plans to do whatever it takes to re-sign Harrison, the team's first-round pick in 1996.
"Will those three take us out of the free agent market? Yes," Polian said. "It will stretch us from the standpoint of cash, but we'll do everything we can to keep them together. A lot of times you've got to be a little lucky to get players like this. We were very fortunate to have a shot at Peyton and Edgerrin back-to-back."
Polian was not quite as amazed as Mora by the Colts' performance this year, and he also would prefer not to get too worked up about the possibility of his young team advancing to the Super Bowl this season.
"I felt like if everything broke right we'd have a chance to be decent," he said. "I felt pretty good about that. It meant that Edgerrin James had to play well, that Peyton had to improve dramatically over his first year and the defense had to play the way we hoped it would. Those things are all rare occurences, and you certainly can't bank on it happening. We've also been relatively injury-free.
"A team like this has to learn how to win, and we've done that. Now, you've got to learn how to win in the playoffs, and we have to learn how to prepare for it. The matchups are different, the venues are different. As a new team, I just don't know. It's a learning experience. And it's a joyous experience. But you better benefit from it for the next time."