Circumstances Make AFC Games Bigger Than Ever This Season, Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – The talk has changed with the circumstances.
And around the Colts this season, there is a different slant when discussing games such as the one they will play Sunday against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
In years past, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy talked often of the imance of games against the AFC South, and how they in essence counted double because the Colts a) had a chance to win a game and b) had a chance to put a division opponent further behind.
Make no mistake:
Division games are still big, Colts players said this week.
It's just now they say games against AFC opponents – teams such as New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego – count double, too. And to hear Colts players discuss it this past week, that makes Sunday's game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh – an important, high-profile game under normal circumstances – even more so.
Because the Steelers are an AFC rival. And this season, that matters. A lot.
"It's an AFC matchup, and it really counts two," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said as the Colts (4-4) prepared to play the Steelers (6-2) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
And while such words in past seasons were typically spoken when preparing for AFC South opponents, the first half of the season changed that.
The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions, lost four of their first seven games, and in so doing, slipped four games behind the unbeaten Tennessee Titans (8-0) in the division. In the South's previous six seasons, the Colts had trailed by no more than a game.
And while Colts players said this week they have not conceded the division, they also spoke of needing victories to enhance their chances for a wild-card spot in a highly-competitive AFC.
"Every one is crucial and critical," said Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who – like 22 of his teammates – never has played on an NFL team that didn't win the AFC South.
"It's kind of the thing we've done to ourselves. It's unfortunate, but we're not going to do the if-we-could-have-done-this-or-if-we-could-have-done-that thing. We have to face every week with great tempo and great preparation and go out and execute on game days."
The Colts are in the middle of a five-week stretch against AFC contenders, a stretch that includes this past Sunday's victory and the next four games: at Pittsburgh (6-2) Sunday, home against Houston (3-5) next Sunday and at San Diego (3-5) and at Cleveland (3-6) the following two weeks.
The Colts, New England (5-3), Houston, San Diego and Cleveland are among 11 AFC teams with three-to-five victories. The others are the New York Jets (5-3), Buffalo Bills (5-3), Baltimore Ravens (5-3), Miami Dolphins (4-4), Denver Broncos (5-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (3-5) and the tight nature of the AFC makes the coming weeks critical, Dungy said earlier this week.
"We still have a chance and that's why every week is important when you're in a stretch like this, with all teams that are really in the hunt," Dungy said.
"We've put ourselves in a hole," Colts defensive tackle Raheem Brock said. "Every game is important to us now. It's like your backs are against the wall. Every game feels like a playoff game. We're just trying to get better."
Brock, like many players, said the Colts took a step towards that last week. Playing against the defending AFC Champions, they committed no turnovers and were penalized once with no yards assessed.
It was, Dungy said, the sort of low-mistake, high-efficiency performance with which the Colts have won in the past and for which they have worked throughout this season.
"We've got little things here and there, consistency to work on, but things seem to be coming along fine," Brock said. "We just want to get better this next part of the season, the second half of the season."
But Dungy said although the Colts were efficient in an 18-15 victory over the Patriots, that sort of performance must become routine in the second half of the season for the Colts to negotiate a contender-laden schedule and make the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
While the Colts have typically made the playoffs in recent seasons after quick starts – they started the past three seasons 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0, respectively – Dungy long has said November and December are the critical months of a season. And during his tenure, they have played consistently through the final two months – particularly in critical situations.
In 2002, Dungy's first season, the Colts won six of their final eight games after a 4-4 start to finish 10-6 and qualify for the postseason as a wild card. In 2004, they were 5-3 and tied for first place in the AFC South with Jacksonville after eight games.
They won seven consecutive games before resting starters in a season-ending loss without playoff implications. They won the division by three games.
Since Dungy's arrival, Indianapolis is 34-16 in the second half of the season, and has had a winning record in the final eight weeks in five of six seasons. The lone exception was 2006, when the Colts finished 4-4 in the second half of the season before winning Super Bowl XLI.
"That's what we have to do," Dungy said. "That's what November will be all about, if we can sustain it and we're going to have to with the schedule we have. We're going to have to play consistent, good football over a stretch to win enough of these games."
Said Brackett, "I definitely start with one (victory). Going on the road and having two tough losses (against Tennessee and Green Bay), you just want to get on a winning streak."
A winning streak now would be more than a winning streak, Brackett said, because it would earn the Colts key tiebreakers in something they haven't been accustomed to in recent years – a competitive, wild-card chase where conference games are critically important.
"We really want to get the tiebreaker against those guys (the Steelers), so this game's at a premium," Brackett said. "We want to go out there and get a victory on the road. The last two spots, the two wild cards, are going to go to the best record, and it's going to go to common opponents, then it's going to go to AFC record. Those guys are the in AFC. We have a win against Baltimore, who's going to be in the run for it later in the year, and New England. If we get one against Pittsburgh, we're going to be in pretty good shape.
"We just have to continue to keep winning. Coming down the road, these are going to be the games that are going to be the tiebreakers. These are going to be the ones that are going to make the difference of you getting a run at the Super Bowl or going home in January."