Colts treat trip to Gillette as 'another game'

INDIANAPOLIS -- They understand all about their reputation and popular perception, that they are the NFL equivalent of hothouse tomatoes.

You know, a team that enjoys the "Greenhouse Effect," playing its home contests in the environmentally-controlled comfort of the RCA Dome and then turning into wilting orchids when forced to go on the road and execute outdoors in chilly climes.

But for the Indianapolis Colts -- who will have to go to their personal house of horrors next week and win at dreaded Gillette Stadium and against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots if they are to extend the 2004 season and again reach the AFC title game -- perception isn't necessarily reality.

"It's a little bit like this whole (notion) today, that we couldn't stand up that well to a real physical team and that we would back down," said tight end Dallas Clark, following the Colts' 49-24 manhandling of the Denver Broncos in a wild-card game Sunday. "We feel like we can play anywhere. We think we can move the ball and score. There is a lot of confidence on this team. And it's not like we ever think, 'Oh, no, we have a road game outside. Woe is us.' It's just another game -- a game in which we're going to have to play well to win. That it's outside, well, that's just (incidental)."

Certainly, if they had their druthers, the Colts would prefer to move into the divisional round with another contest here, where they play a step quicker on both sides of the ball and where they have the advantage of a thunderous crowd. But the perception the Colts are significantly less threatening is steeped in more fiction than fact.

The joke making the rounds in the press box at halftime on Sunday, with the Colts ahead of the overmatched Broncos 35-3 and clearly headed toward another showdown with the Pats, was that New England coach Bill Belichick already had the groundskeepers at Gillette Stadium turn on the sprinklers to create a slow track.

Colts players insisted, though, they feel they are on the right track in their pursuit of the ever-elusive Super Bowl berth.

"If the Patriots stop us, well, that's one thing," said wide receiver Brandon Stokley. "But I don't see the weather, the field, the conditions, any of that stuff stopping us. I think we are beyond all that stuff by now. We've shown that we're a good road team."

In the three seasons of coach Tony Dungy's stewardship, Indianapolis is 18-9 away from home, counting postseason contests. All nine losses have been outdoors. But the .667 road winning percentage is one of the best in the NFL over the past three seasons, by far the top three-season road stretch since the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and indicative of the deceptive toughness of Dungy's team.

Anyone recall that Indianapolis went to Arrowhead Stadium in the second round of the '03 playoffs, one of the most hostile environments in the NFL, and dispatched the Kansas City Chiefs 38-31 in a matchup in which the Colts punted zero times? Indianapolis won at Tennessee each of the last two seasons, defeated a tough Jacksonville team on the road this year and has averaged 26.8 points on the road in Dungy's three seasons.

So if the Colts just go to New England next Sunday and play an average game in terms of scoring output, the Patriots will need four touchdowns to win. Problem is, Indianapolis has been subpar in its last few visits to Foxboro, losing the AFC Championship Game last season, when Peyton Manning threw four interceptions, and then turning the ball over three times in the red zone in this year's regular-season opener.

No one is more aware than Manning of the past failures in Foxboro. But on Sunday evening, typically, he tried neither to hide from them nor to blame them on environment. It is the Patriots, not the building in which they perform, Manning noted, that presents the Colts with their biggest problem.

"I played like an absolute dog up there last year," Manning said. "No ifs, ands or buts about it. But I've got to play well, and we've all got to play well, no matter where the game is played. Would we love to have a (divisional-round) game at home? Sure, we would, but that's not how it turned out.

"So you just deal with it," he said.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.