Patriots monkey off Colts' back; playoff gorilla remains

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just off the top of my head, I haven't a clue what Troy Aikman's regular-season road record against San Francisco is, how many times John Elway left Arrowhead Stadium a loser the first week of November, or how Joe Montana fared against the Giants in Week 5 or Week 7 or Week 9. I'm willing to bet that I'm not alone. Chuck Noll's and Bill Walsh's and Joe Gibbs' and Bill Belichick's overall success rate on the road against their rivals are a mystery to me, but what I do know is that each has won at least three Super Bowls.

Point is, in pro football, there are no legends of the fall. Greatness is attained in January.

A monkey may be off the backs of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy after Monday night, but the gorilla hasn't gone anywhere. Games played this time of year simply do not qualify as "big."

For Manning, Dungy and the team they lead, the 2005 regular season is a mere prelude to possibility -- the possibility that they finally might win the game that truly matters. We've seen the Colts look strong in September through December, only to crumble under the pressure of the postseason. So while the Colts may have gotten over a hump of sorts Monday, reaching the pinnacle remains weeks away.

Indianapolis may have beaten back their ghosts for one night, but the Colts' true demons, they live in January.

"I told our guys in the locker room that Pittsburgh beat these guys in the regular season [last year] and couldn't do it in the playoffs," Dungy said. "Week 8 doesn't really guarantee you anything."

Let's be real about something: Not to come across as a hater, but a 40-21 win over the Patriots -- these depleted Patriots, who these days are having difficulty simply defending their end zone, let alone their back-to-back championships -- pretty much is the equivalent of standing up to your elementary school bully 25 years later, by which time you've taken up weight lifting while Biff Tannen has an arthritic knee and can't see his shoes past his gut.

Sure, Indy felt good about knocking out the Patriots on their lawn, but it wasn't the same. It does not erase the past two postseasons, when the Patriots beat down the Colts and took their Super Bowl trips from them. Anyway, this matchup, quite frankly, was not the fairest of fights. But we all knew it coming in.

On their way out of Gillette, to their credit, the Colts were careful not to get excited about their eighth victory in as many games this season. Was the win significant? Of course, but only in that it kept the Colts two losses ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the race for the coveted home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Otherwise it means little more, just as another 12- or 13-win season and the AFC South title won't mean jack if the Colts aren't playing in Detroit on Feb. 5.

"We've got bigger fish to fry," Reggie Wayne said.

The Patriots sure looked cooked, didn't they? Indianapolis was able to turn the tables and take a fairly commanding 21-7 lead into halftime. Said Dungy on his way to the team bus, "It was a good win because we did what we were supposed to do. For the first time, we came up here relaxed."

Indeed, the Colts were supposed to win in convincing fashion Monday night. Which means I'm still not convinced that this is their year.

It may sound like it, but honestly, I'm not taking anything away from the fact that they're 8-0 and have won five games on the road. It's just that I'm not ready to hand them the Lombardi Trophy. Not yet. Hey Colts fans: Do me a favor and save me a space on the bandwagon. I promise I'll jump on if the Colts go 3-for-5 or 4-for-5 in games at Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Seattle and at home against Pittsburgh and San Diego.

I believe Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback is a better team than the Colts. I believe Carolina and Denver are in the same class. The Bengals are plenty good enough to beat the Colts Nov. 20 in Cincinnati. My skepticism is not the Colts' fault. All they've done is what they can: played (and won) the games on their schedule. But that doesn't change the fact that their previous seven opponents combined have lost twice as many games as they've won (they're 19-38).

Even so, regarding the matter of most importance, yes, the Colts can win the Super Bowl. They have a balanced offense and a speedy defense to complement it. And maybe, after Monday night, they have the kind of "anytime, anywhere" confidence champions possess. We'll find out just how good and how tough they are real soon.

But it's too soon to declare mission accomplished for Indianapolis.

"You don't win championships in September or October and you don't win them in Week 8 and you don't win them with one game," Dungy said.

Had the Colts lost again here to the Patriots, it would not have mattered. This team, and ultimately Manning and Dungy, will be judged on whether they can break through and win the really big one.

That's all anyone remembers.

"Everybody wants to define your career in the middle of it," Manning said as he, for the first time in eight visits, left the victorious locker room here.

The next big thing for him is improving upon his 3-5 postseason mark.

"Wait until I've played 15 years and then judge," he said.

"Only thing I know that I can't do is sing, but it won't keep me from trying, you know what I mean? Every time we came up here, I've been surprised. The record was the record. But every game I came up here I felt like we were going to win. It was no different tonight."

Oh, but it was. Whether the Colts are a different team come January remains to be seen.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.