(TONY GUTIERREZ ~ Associated Press)
After complaining for weeks about the Colts' run defense and mental errors, and more recently a rash of turnovers, Dungy believes Sunday's loss to Dallas sent a stronger message.
Play smart, stay focused, and the wins will follow. Make mistakes and you're just another imperfect team.
"We had our chances, but we didn't play well," he said. "You're disappointed when you lose, but I'm more disappointed that we didn't do the things it took to win."
Dungy rarely criticizes players publicly, but has shown his increasing displeasure by challenging everybody to be more detail-oriented over the past several weeks.
Most of the mistakes were covered up by the Colts' flawless record.
They had won 30 straight regular-season games when playoff implications were at stake; became the first team in NFL history with back-to-back 9-0 seasons; and for the second straight year were the league's last unbeaten team until Sunday.
But in the cruel NFL world, where a team can go from Super Bowl favorite to also-ran in the blink of an eye, Sunday's 21-14 loss has given Indy a harsh reality check.
"I think a loss gets your attention," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "You learn a lot more when you lose than when you win. Sometimes when you win, the other team outplays you and it's hard to learn from your mistakes."
That's not the case any more.
If the loss at Dallas exposed anything, it was the cracks Dungy detected weeks ago.
Indianapolis (9-1) committed only four turnovers in its first seven games, but has eight in the past three games .
They've gone from one of the least-penalized teams in football to nearly dropping out of the top 10. Their red-zone defense is the worst in the AFC, allowing 19 touchdowns in 29 drives or 65.5 percent of the time, and, of course, their run defense remains last in the league at 165 yards per game.
Dungy blames his team.
"I can safely say that it was not the 3-4 defense or that their big guys on offense wore us down. We gave away some points and we have to stop doing that," Dungy said. "If we do, we'll be a good team. If we don't, we're going to struggle like we did this weekend."
As recently as Friday, Dungy said he told players to focus on the little things that can be the difference in a close game.
They didn't respond Sunday.
Two-time MVP Peyton Manning fumbled twice and threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, in his worst game of the season. Normally sure-handed receiver Marvin Harrison fumbled for the first time in more than 200 catches, and Manning's other receivers dropped many balls they normally catch.
Perhaps most upsetting to Dungy was that the Colts' best defensive effort of the season was wasted because they lost their focus late.
"Basically, we kept them out of the end zone the first three quarters and we kept them out again on a penalty that wasn't very smart on an interception," Dungy said. "After that, I don't know what happened. Basically, we didn't play our defense for the last 10 minutes of the game."
Some people thought Indy could have avoided defeat if Dungy had challenged the interception return because it appeared Harrison may have touched Kevin Burnett when he fell to the ground.
Others thought the problems ranged from the constant pressure Dallas put on Manning to a couple of questionable calls near the goal line to the pressure of chasing perfection again.
"There's no pressure," Dungy said. "I'd like to see us play well and win every game and play better than we did last year. One benefit is that we don't have to answer that question (about being undefeated) any more. But there was no pressure on us last year and there was no pressure on us yesterday."
The loss also could work to the Colts advantage.
A year ago, they wrapped up the AFC's top seed with three weeks to play and decided to rest many of their starters the final two weeks of the season. The result: Indy never regained its momentum and lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round at home.
With Baltimore and San Diego only one game behind the Colts, home-field advantage could force the Colts to continue competing.
A loss to an NFC team also does not hurt Indy in a tiebreaker scenario because it still holds the advantage against all of its nearest challengers because of a perfect conference record.
And, of course, Dungy's message will resonate a little more loudly.
"I think it has a bigger impact when you see it happen in a loss and it affects you," Dungy said. "One turnover or one dumb penalty when you win, maybe you don't look at it as critically."