— SAN DIEGO - It takes guts and wile to win in the National Football League.
It takes confidence and resilience.
It takes the professionalism that is the hallmark of a team coached by Tony Dungy, and that's why, with four straight victories, the latest a taut 23-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts have emerged as one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.
"We are playing in that time championship teams have to shine," Dungy said as he was getting dressed in the Colts' locker room Sunday night, Indianapolis a winner on a 51-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal knocked through as time expired.
It's official: The Colts are on a roll. "I like where we are," Dungy said.
"We're fighting and scratching and clawing," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said, adding a moment later, "And getting it done."
Two years after their Super Bowl victory, Indianapolis would now seem set up for another likely run deep into the post-season.
The victory over the Chargers -- which knocked San Diego to 4-7 and perhaps out of the playoffs -- lifted Indianapolis to 7-4. Next on the Colts' schedule: Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit.
For Indianapolis, that means 10-4 is far from out of the question before the Colts wrap up at Jacksonville and at home against Tennessee.
The Titans, 10-1, would seem to have the AFC South division all but locked up; Indy is three back with five games to go. But what matters is getting into the playoffs, and as Dungy pointed out as he was getting dressed in the Qualcomm Stadium locker room Sunday night, "We're playing better than we've played all year. This is the time of year you want to do it."
If you can do it at less than full strength, moreover, so much the better. Indianapolis won at San Diego without star safety Bob Sanders; he has a hurt knee and didn't play. The Colts won, moreover, despite losing star offensive lineman Jeff Saturday early in the game with a calf strain; the severity of his injury remained immediately unclear.
They won because that is what they do, and it what they do because it's what they expect to do.
The Colts articulate, as a team and to a man, their goals. They assign responsibility. Then they go and create opportunities.
It's not dull. It's brilliant. It's what sustained excellence looks like.
For instance, early in the third quarter Sunday night, the Chargers driving, San Diego at the Indianapolis 14, the Colts' Robert Mathis sacked quarterback Philip Rivers, the Colts' Raheem Brock recovering at the Indianapolis 34. That play turned the momentum in the game, Dungy and others said afterward.
Manning then moved the Colts all the way down the field.
On first and goal from the 1, though, Colts' running back Dominic Rhodes went backward.
Second down, now from the 2, and a shovel pass to Rhodes went nowhere.
Third down, Rhodes tries the left side. Nothing. Across the line, San Diego linebacker Stephen Cooper, helmetless, started celebrating the goal-line stand.
But wait. The Colts would not settle for a field goal. They lined up. An empty backfield. Manning found Rhodes on the quickest of slants. Touchdown.
"Never giving up," Rhodes said, adding, "That's what we're about here, staying focused and making plays."
The Colts would extend the lead to 20-10. The Chargers, though came back and tied it with a minute and a half to go in the game.
For Peyton Manning, 90 seconds might as well be an eternity.
You know it. He knows it. Everyone knows it.
With under 30 seconds to go, the Colts appeared to have converted a third-down play at midfield by just inches. A review, however, went San Diego's way. That made it fourth down.
It is a measure of the composure of the Dungy way that, during the extended break during which the referees were reviewing the video evidence, he, Manning and the rest were calmly reviewing their options.
It is also a measure of the Colts' emotional fortitude that when the call didn't go their way, the response on the Indianapolis sideline was to shrug and say, OK, let's go line it up.
Instead of a fourth-down plunge into the line, the Colts went for yards, isolating Marvin Harrison on the left side of the field. The pass went for 14 yards, to the San Diego 34.
Now the Colts let the clock run, all the way down to 15 seconds. Why bleed so much time? Because no way a Dungy-led team would allow for the possibility, no matter how remote, that a bizarre mistake might afford an opponent a chance.
With everyone expecting pass, the Colts called a run play, Joseph Addai up the middle, to the 33.
The clock, of course, kept running. Would Indianapolis now have enough time to get set so Manning could spike the ball? Saturday, the Colts' standout center, was long gone from the game, replaced by Jamey Richard.
The Manning spike came with but two seconds to go.
On came Vinatieri, who last year here missed what could have been a game-winning kick.
Given the chance Sunday night for redemption, he nailed it.
"Making that kick," Vinatieri said, "was pretty sweet."
There's a lot going on right with the Indianapolis Colts right now. Don't ever forget -- it's by design.
"We talked about it last night," Dungy was saying late Sunday, recalling the team meeting here Saturday.
"This game would tell us a lot about where we are in our preparation for the playoffs. Because we're going to play a team that had to win, a team that is very talented, in a tough environment.
"So for our young guys and how our team in general, how would we respond? It was going to be close. It'd be a game where you'd have to make plays in the fourth quarter. And they did.
"They stayed composed. A lot of momentum shifts but we made the plays that counted in the fourth quarter."
He also said, referring now to the course of the season with an eye toward what lies ahead, "We've been tested. And we're passing the tests."