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Goal to go Polian's Colts resemble Super Bowl Bills, and both are still chasing the ultimate prize

bigcap,4,mdl BBill Polian has had a front-row seat for the heroic football careers of Jim Kelly and Peyton Manning.

So there may not be anyone in America who has been personally involved in more thrilling football games in the past 20 years than Polian, the man who built the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl teams and the current Indianapolis Colts juggernaut.

"I've never thought of it that way, but there have been a lot of great ones," Polian said last week from his office in Indianapolis. "I remember the greatest comeback ever, that famous game in San Francisco [in 1992], the overtime game in Denver [a Colts' win in 2002]. And this last one might have been the most thrilling from the standpoint of the wild twists and turns that took place in the game."

"This last one" was the Colts' epic, 38-34 win over New England in last week's AFC Championship Game.

The victory earned Polian his first Super Bowl trip since the last game of his Bills tenure in 1993. Polian has won a lot of games since getting fired by the Bills. He built Carolina into a contender in just its second season in 1996, and the Colts are 92-52 in his nine-year reign. But he realizes how hard it is to get to the title game, and he's grateful for another shot next Sunday in Miami in Super Bowl XLI.

"It's great to be back," Polian said. "You treasure the opportunity. We had a championship game in Carolina and another in Foxborough [Mass.] three years ago. . . . So when you do get the chance, you value it and appreciate it, and you have to make the most of it. Hopefully we can get this last win."

The team Polian has built in Indianapolis bears some striking resemblances to the one he built in Buffalo. Polian likes to compare Colts coach Tony Dungy to Marv Levy in terms of philosophy and temperament.

"When Tony and I talked after he was released by Tampa Bay, we spent six hours together and it seemed like six minutes," Polian said. "At one point we were talking about how you prepare the team for the long haul and he said, 'I see you're smiling, did I say something funny?' And I said, 'No I've just heard this all before -- exactly the same things from Marv Levy.' It's striking how similar they are in their approach, especially considering they never crossed paths in their career and never worked with any of the same people."

As in Buffalo, Polian's team is led by a great quarterback who has a lot of control in running a no-huddle style offense.

"Personality-wise they're obviously very different," Polian said of Kelly and Manning. "But in the end they're guys who are willing to bear the burden and the responsibility squarely on their shoulders. They almost relish it. So whether it's coming back from an 18-point deficit against New England or coming back from a 21-point deficit in Joe Robbie Stadium [as Kelly did in 1987] . . . that doesn't faze either guy. And in toughness, too, they're similar."

Like the Bills, the Colts are an offensive power that has been trying to find the last few pieces of its defensive puzzle.

"It's only been the last two years where we've gotten close to where we want to be on defense," Polian said.

Draft choices such as Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders, Robert Mathis and Cato June have bolstered the Colts' defense.

"It's Tony who deserves the credit," Polian said. "When we hired Tony I was very sure his system would fit with players we already had. And his defensive style would give us the opportunity to succeed, even though we'd be drafting low."

Polian means the smaller, speed players that fit Dungy's scheme are a bit easier to find than superstar behemoths taken at the top of the first round.

"When we drafted Dwight Freeney 11th [in 2002], we had a debate whether we'd take a huge defensive tackle or Freeney," Polian said. "We were both working out the morning of the draft and I said, 'What do you think?' And he said, 'Given the choice, I'll always take speed.' I said, 'That's good enough for me.' "

"This year it's been a struggle defensively due to injuries but we've hung in there and got better," he said.

While the Bills' Super Bowl teams were best known for offense, Polian disagrees with the suggestion that the Buffalo defense never was quite good enough to win it all.

"I don't know about that; I'd dispute that," Polian said. "In [Super Bowl] 25, we played more than well enough to win. The lack of a timeout in the end cost us. . . . The next year we were so banged up we definitely weren't the same team on defense. The third year we played awful; we had just a terrible day. The fourth year we turned the ball over. The defense played pretty well that day."

Polian hopes the ball bounces his way in his fourth crack at a Super Bowl ring. As well as the Colts played in beating the Patriots, he acknowledges they got some good fortune.

For example, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne bobbled a reception on the final drive but regained possession of the ball for an important gain.

"If you build a team that's good enough to get to the final four, the rest is in the hands of the football gods," Polian said.

Polian is just one of many people at Super Bowl XLI with Buffalo connections.

Chicago's director of college scouting, Greg Gabriel, is a Buffalo native and a graduate of Bishop Neumann High School in Williamsville and Canisius College. Both strength and conditioning coaches worked in Buffalo. Chicago's is Rusty Jones, who spent 20 years with the Bills. Indianapolis' is Jon Torine, who worked under Jones in Buffalo from '95 to '97.

Polian's son, Chris, is vice president of football operations for the Colts. He's a St. Francis High graduate, as is Tom Telesco, Colts director of player personnel, and David Caldwell, Colts area scout.

Bears guard Ruben Brown was an eight-time Pro Bowler for the Bills. The Colts' No. 3 defensive end, Josh Thomas, is an Orchard Park graduate. Colts special teamer Keith O'Neil is a Sweet Home graduate. Pete Metzelaars, the Bills' career-leading tight end, is a quality control aide for the Colts. Bill Brooks, a receiver who helped the Bills get to their fourth Super Bowl, is Colts executive director of administration.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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