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Sports media: Expert analysis from NBC’s Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison

After his stint coaching the Colts, Tony Dungy seemed reticent to criticize as an analyst, but that’s changed this year.
After his stint coaching the Colts, Tony Dungy seemed reticent to criticize as an analyst, but that’s changed this year.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

On those NFL Sunday nights when the Patriots, Colts, and even Peyton Manning's Broncos are the prime-time stars of NBC's schedule, more often than not there is a bonus of genuine insight in the buildup to the evening's broadcast.

It's not serendipitous so much as it is by design, but when NBC hired Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison before the 2009 season as analysts for "Football Night in America," it gave its pregame show a strength that is scarcer on other networks than perhaps it should be.

Dungy and especially Harrison are experts who actually are experts, earning that designation based on a deep and not-too-distant past association with a particular player or franchise.

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Now, that is not a nod to Dungy's six seasons (1996-2001) as the Buccaneers coach, nor is it a reference to Harrison's nine years (1994-2002) spent repeatedly revealing his merciless methods of playing safety for the Chargers.

It is a reference to Dungy's seven seasons (2002-08) as the Colts head coach, where he coached Manning during his heyday (as well as remaining luminary Reggie Wayne) while dealing with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in what felt like at least one high-stakes game per year.

And it's a nod to Harrison's six seasons (2003-08) anchoring the Patriots defense, including back-to-back seasons (2003-04) in which they stymied the Dungy/Manning Colts en route to eventually winning the Super Bowl.

For fans of an AFC team besides the Patriots, Colts, or Broncos, their frequent appearances probably become redundant, even annoying. At least Steelers fans have former receiver and on-site analyst Hines Ward to remind them of some recent glory days.

NBC does exploit these connections, as it should. They are marquee teams featuring rosters dotted with some of the league's marquee players. They should play on "Sunday Night Football" often, and they do.

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Last season, the Patriots, Colts, and Broncos appeared a total of eight times — four by the Broncos, and two each for the Patriots and Colts. Oddly, all were in the first dozen weeks of the season.

The trio of teams has each appeared twice on SNF this season, including Sunday night. The Patriots and Broncos each have at least one Sunday night game remaining — the Patriots, who were 43-17 victors over the Bengals in their first Sunday night game Oct. 5, are at the Chargers Dec. 7 if that game isn't flexed out for a more appealing matchup.

Manning's Broncos will visit the Chiefs Nov. 30, a game that took on more potential intrigue Sunday when the Broncos lost to the Rams, 22-7, in a game in which tight end Julius Thomas and receiver Emmanuel Sanders suffered injuries. The Chiefs and Broncos, AFC West rivals, are both 7-3.

In his early years on "Football Night in America," Dungy was plagued by an issue that faces many ex-coaches and players as they transition to broadcasting: He came across as protective of the players he was most familiar with, starting with Manning.

But recently — it may have just begun this season, come to think of it — he has been more forthcoming and nonpartisan. Last month on the "Dan Patrick Show," he acknowledged that Brady, to this point, has had a better career than Manning because he has been to and won more Super Bowls. There's no way Dungy would have said that in 2009.

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As for Harrison, he may not be the most compelling sports radio guest – during his weekly call-ins to WEEI's "Dennis and Callahan," it seems the more information or insight they try to get from him, the less he provides. But he's been a candid and articulate analyst on "Sunday Night Football" virtually since his debut.

He's not a natural — it's almost an insult to suggest someone is, because it dismisses the work that goes into succeeding on television — but he does make it look that way. His segment Sunday night, in which he attempted to cover Rob Gronkowski while discussing with the Patriots' dynamic tight end his techniques for shaking off defenders, was particularly entertaining.

And then there is this telling sign that he has made the full transition to media member in the eyes of his former coach.

Harrison said earlier this week that Belichick was treating the Colts game with the importance of a playoff game. How did he know?

"I wanted to have a conversation with Bill [during the week], and he declined to have a conversation with me,'' said Harrison. "He's really focused on this game."

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com.