They can thank Terrell Owens, in part

You read it here. The Indianapolis Colts are going to win the Super Bowl.

They may or may not go undefeated, but they will win the Super Bowl. They have to win. The deck is stacked in their favor.

It’s not just because Edgerrin James is having a career season. It’s not just because the Colts finally have a high-powered defense to go along with their marquee offense.

When the Colts do take home the Super Bowl trophy, it won’t just be because of what goes on between the lines and in the red zone. The NFL needs the Colts to win in order to redeem itself.

Pro sports is in desperate need of an image overhaul, or so the commissioners of the major leagues believe. After the events of Nov. 19, 2004, when Ron Artest defended himself against a fan attack, the NBA responded in the most reactionary, punitive way possible, not because Artest’s actions were so offensive, but because the league believed it needed to send a message to its red-state fans.

Football is in a similar predicament, with the Terrell Owens situation being the final straw for Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. And since football draws more conservative red-state fans than any other sport save NASCAR, the league needs to reach out to its base and reassure them that everything is under control.

Turns out Rush Limbaugh had it backward. The NFL and the media are very desirous of having a white quarterback succeed. They need an antidote to T.O.

And the Colts are the opposite of the flashy, selfish style of T.O. They’re the embodiment of the well-behaved, disciplined team. Look for the NFL to exploit their image and their style for all it’s worth. And it’s worth millions of dollars in revenue.

In order to expel the demons facing pro sports, sacrifices must be offered up to its fans. Hence the punishments given Owens and Artest. Unwittingly, the Colts have become the symbols of red-state wholesomeness, of Jeff Gordon drinking milk in Victory Lane and the “good old days,” meaning the pre-Artest era.

Manning is perfectly suited for corporate endorsements. A company need have no fear that the Colts will become mired in scandal. The worst behavior Manning will ever exhibit is forgetting to say “Excuse me” while walking through a crowd.

This isn’t meant to take anything away from their ability on the field. The Colts certainly have the talent to win the rest of their games and finish the year with a perfect record. Corey Simon, the unsung hero of the defensive line, has come up big again and again.

Robert Mathis has provided a defensive presence to complement Dwight Freeney, who no longer works alone. Gary Brackett, despite his erratic play, has emerged as a top-notch linebacker.

And then there’s the offense, which was already great but has become legendary this season. Manning’s exploits are well-known, but James has been the straw that stirs the drink.

Years of injuries have taken their toll on James’ ability to break off huge runs, as he once did, but he’s the undisputed champion of grinding away with five to nine yard gains, which wears down the opposing defense and gives Manning more opportunities to pass deep downfield.

And unlike past Colts teams, this year’s squad is big on making statements when necessary. Their Monday night game against New England could have gone like past trips to Foxborough, but the Colts came out angry and dominated the game on both ends. When they scored touchdowns, they’d punch-spike the ball, not in celebration but in rage.

And this past Monday, the Colts could have folded against a tough Pittsburgh team. Instead, Manning threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison on the first play of the game.

Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher was so upset that he made a rare mental mistake and attempted an ill-fated onside kick to start the second half. Once the Colts recovered the ball and punched it into the end zone, it was game over for the Steelers.

And the road to the playoffs looks much easier now. With an 11-0 record, the Colts host the woeful Tennessee Titans on Sunday. They then face Jacksonville, whom they should beat handily. The only quality opponents in front of them are San Diego on Dec. 18 and the potential Super Bowl preview on Christmas Eve, when the Colts travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks.

They finish the regular season against 99-year-old Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals on New Year’s Day. Warner possesses the speed of a tortoise and should be knocked out of the game shortly after kickoff.

Yes, the Colts are a great team. They may well give Indiana its first pro sports championship in 30 years.

And when they do, they should send thank-you notes to T.O. and Ron Artest, for helping make it possible.

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