USA Today – Nov 04, 2005 – Tom Weir – Monday night, the Indianapolis Colts face their nemesis, the New England Patriots, in a matchup where the examination of Xs and Os has given way to psychological analysis.

Peyton Manning’s memories of the Patriots are not fond ones considering he is 2-10 against the team since 1998.

The conventional wisdom is this is a mini-Super Bowl for the Colts, even when they are the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team and have a 1½-game lead in the AFC race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

New England has been characterized as the monkey on Indianapolis’ back, but the Patriots have been more like a herd of gorillas mooning the Colts’ team bus every time it departs Foxboro, Mass.

The Patriots are 10-2 when Peyton Manning is the opposing quarterback and 7-0 against him at Foxborough, which also is where the Colts have been ousted from the playoffs the past two seasons.

So, with the Colts headed to the scene of their darkest memories, how did they use their time during the just-completed bye week? Poring over Patriots film? Getting an early start on the game plan? Shopping for mojos on eBay?

Hardly. Head coach Tony Dungy went fishing in Florida and gave his players a vacation, saying he preferred to stick to his normal week of preparation and treat New England like any opponent.

“If we win the game, we certainly don’t want to feel like all of a sudden we’ve arrived, or we beat the New England Patriots so our season’s over,” Dungy says. “That will get us in trouble.”

Thursday, Manning was asked to characterize the tension, the buildup, and whether this is a must-win for the Colts’ collective psyche.

“Let’s see,” said Manning, surveying the Indianapolis locker room. “You’ve got a card game going on over there, somebody’s reading a book over there.”

The pregame hype includes Manning sharing the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated with New England quarterback Tom Brady. After three steady seasons of answering rounds of New England-oriented questions, Manning has become adept at fending them off.

Is he more confident entering this New England game?

“I can’t really remember my mood going into the week the other times we played them.”

What would a victory do for the team’s confidence?

“I can’t answer that.”

Does he constantly hear about the losses to New England?

“I don’t keep a chart or anything.”

Prodded further to give perspective on what vanquishing New England would do for Indianapolis’ mind-set, Manning passed on making any Freudian analogies and quoted a line uttered by the Ebby Calvin LaLoosh character in Bull Durham:

“I like winning. It’s better than losing.”

Getting over the hurdle a chore

Rather than focus on the history of this series, Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor suggests a review of the league standings, which show New England at 4-3.

“I wouldn’t say this is our measuring stick,” says Reagor, one of the anchors on a defensive unit that has allowed an NFL-low 77 points this season. “We’re 7-0. We’re the undefeated team.”

New England head coach Bill Belichick concurs, saying, “I don’t see how you can say anybody is better than them. They haven’t lost a game. That’s more than anybody else can say.”

But the Colts still are at a junction other excellent teams faced before winning a Super Bowl.

Green Bay lost three consecutive playoff games at Dallas in the ’90s, then got its Super Bowl championship in the 1996 season when Carolina did the Packers the favor of beating Dallas in a playoff.

Tampa Bay lost playoff games at Philadelphia in 2000 and 2001, then set up its 2002 season Super Bowl win by beating the Eagles in the last game at Veterans Stadium.

Sports psychologists say there’s a harrowing aspect to facing an opponent who always has come out ahead, even if it’s a New England team that hasn’t won back-to-back games this season.

“Absolutely, confidence and momentum have a life of their own that pervades the team psyche,” says John F. Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla., sports psychologist who has worked with NFL players.

“The greatest source of confidence is past success, so if you have a history of blowing it several times in a row, the tendency could be dwelling on that.”

Until the Colts end their six-game losing streak against the Patriots, adds Murray, “They’re facing two enemies, the team they’re facing, and their history.”

Roland A. Carlstedt, chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology, says he has done extensive research on more than 40 teams and 700 athletes.

If a team has individuals with a negative predisposition about facing their opponent, said Carlstedt in an e-mail, “They go into a game over- or under-activated. They fear losing, experiencing a coach’s wrath. When the game is on, they are slower, weaker and lack mind-body control, dynamics that can be captured in EEG and heart-rate variability studies or monitoring.”

Carlstedt adds, “These types of players remain stuck in an anxious ‘thinking’ instead of a ‘just do it’ state that disrupts the fine mind-body control required for peak performance.”

Key game in season’s stretch

That description seemingly applies to Indianapolis when it plays New England, particularly in regard to football’s most important statistic, turnovers.

Since Dungy became head coach in 2002, Indianapolis trails only Kansas City for coming up with more turnovers than it gives up, with a plus-32 mark.

But in the four Dungy-coached games against New England, Indianapolis has committed 13 turnovers to the Patriots’ seven.

Since the Colts’ Manning era began in 1998, the turnover count in head-to-head games is New England 11, Indianapolis 34.

Says Dungy: “People that win big games are people that can function in a pressurized environment and do the same things that they do in a training-camp practice, and that’s what we have not done against New England in the past.”

Dungy adds, “We’ve gone up there and false-started on the first play of the game, when we haven’t had a penalty in four or five weeks.”

Says Colts receiver Brandon Stokley: “I don’t think they’ve been in our heads. They’ve played better than us, and that’s the bottom line.”

Defensive tackle Corey Simon, a Pro Bowler with Philadelphia before coming to Indianapolis as a free agent this season, rolls his eyes at the mention of the psychology factor.

“Psychology. Oh gosh,” says Simon. “This is football. It’s not psychology class. … This team needs to beat New England because that’s who we play this week. That’s the only reason.”

But another reason Indianapolis needs to win is that its second-half schedule gets notably tougher after an early slate that included Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee, San Francisco and Houston, who are a combined 9-27.

Coming up are Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Seattle, who are 16-6 combined.

“All we are is off to a good start,” Manning says. “We knew after this bye week the kind of stretch of football that we’re going to have. This should really tell the tale of what kind of team we are, what kind of team we have, starting on Monday.”

Offense + defense this time

A bigger factor than any New England mental edge might be that Indianapolis is a different team this year, grinding out long drives, throwing shorter passes and relying on its defense.

Last year, receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Stokley had yards-per-catch averages ranging from 12.9 to 16.9 yards. This season, Wayne’s 11.8 average leads the Colts’ core group of receivers.

“I think we’ve surprised some people with our patience,” Manning says. “People say, ‘Boy, you must not like this. The defense is getting all the attention.’ I say, ‘You’ve got it all wrong. This is the way you should have it.’ ”

Last season Manning had 22 touchdown passes after seven games, en route to an NFL-record 49 and his second MVP. With only 11 so far, he grins while acknowledging that fantasy league players “aren’t happy with me. … We’ve got different priorities.”

Although Indianapolis scored an average of only 15.7 points its first three games, it since has averaged 35.5. And though Manning raised eyebrows with a 13-for-28 Week 2 performance against Jacksonville that generated just 122 passing yards, he since has completed 75% of his passes.

“When people say they’re slowing down, I don’t know what games they’re watching,” Belichick said at a news conference this week. “I’d like to be able to go out and average 35 points a game.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.