Here in the heart of basketball country, pro football is the sport being celebrated at least temporarily. Football may never become Indiana's game, but for now this city and surroundings are generating the kind of sports fever normally associated with basketball because on Sunday the RCA Dome will be the site of the Colts' first NFL home playoff game since they moved here from Baltimore in 1984.
The Tennessee Titans will be coming into a madhouse under the big white bubble that dominates the cityscape. Fans have equipped themselves with Colts flags to wave furiously and myriad noisemakers to support their team in this game of many firsts and even more subplots. One of the themes of the week here is how much Peyton Manning is loved in both Tennessee and Indiana; as Colts fans see it, perhaps Titans fans can take solace in setback because one of their own will have done them in.
Colts Coach Jim Mora isn't acting as confidently as Indianapolis fans because he knows strange things can happen in the postseason, having compiled an 0-4 playoff record as the New Orleans Saints' coach and having observed as recently as last week the so-called "Music City Miracle," when the Titans ousted the Buffalo Bills by taking a kickoff and making a last-gasp cross-field lateral and touchdown run that is assured of being one of pro football's most memorable plays.
"We've got to play with more intensity than we did our last game," said Mora, recalling two weeks ago when the Colts finished their brilliant regular season with a dismaying loss to Buffalo.
Few players on either team have much playoff experience, so the outcome may depend on how Manning and running back Edgerrin James perform for the Colts compared with Titans quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George.
Manning, of course, is the brightest quarterbacking prospect to come along in some time. McNair managed only 76 passing yards last week against the Bills. But McNair can run, and the run is what Tennessee surely will attempt.
"George is a big, strong running back," Mora said. "They're going to try to pound it on us."
As youthful as they are, the Titans do have eight veterans from the franchise's last playoff appearance, as the Houston Oilers in 1993. They entered the playoffs having won four straight, and their 13-3 regular season record was the best of any team not to win its division since the NFL began the wild-card playoff setup in 1970. The Titans' defense is the team's best hope, and only Jacksonville and St. Louis have more sacks.
One of the game's subplots is the reunion of James, the offensive rookie of the year, and the Titans' 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end Jevon Kearse, whose 14 1/2 sacks were an unprecedented number for an NFL rookie. James, picked ahead of the more celebrated Ricky Williams, had 1,553 yards rushing and 586 receiving and scored a league-best 17 touchdowns. Kearse and James grew up about 25 miles apart in Florida, and watched the last draft together on television.
Another subplot is the return of a local hero, Tennessee safety Blaine Bishop, who played at Cathedral High in Indianapolis and at nearby Ball State. Coming home to face Manning didn't seem to intimidate him. "We can play better," he said this week, even though the Titans defense already is outstanding. "It's going to be great playing before family and friends. It's going to be a joy."
Of Manning, Bishop said: "He's got a strong arm. He's very smart. He's going to take what the defense gives him." Bishop jokingly said he hopes Manning "throws it to me."
Which team with its many youngsters is able to keep its composure amid the din of the RCA Dome will advance. "I think we're going to come out really fired up," Colts defensive tackle Ellis Johnson said. "We have to win. We are going to leave everything we have on the field. Then we're going to look up on the scoreboard and hope it's enough."
The 64-year-old Mora knows that fan fervor will help the Colts. "The 12th man is going to be extremely important," he said.
If the Titans could leave here with a victory, miraculous or otherwise, they would be legitimate threats to rework the map of pro football and put Tennessee on it.