A FITTING FINISH

The Colts, who have spent the season rallying on the road to produce critical victories, did it again on Thursday to clinch a seventh consecutive playoff appearance. Yet another fitting factor: Peyton Manning turned in another memorable performance in a memorable season.

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Colts Rally Again to Clinch Seventh Consecutive Postseason Appearance
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In a sense, the scenario couldn't have been more fitting.

The Colts, who have spent a nail-biting season rallying from double-digit second-half deficits on the road to produce critical victories, did it again on Thursday to win an eighth consecutive game and clinch a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

Yet another fitting factor:

Their nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback turned in another memorable performance in what has become a memorable season.

Peyton Manning, voted this week to a seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, completed 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, rallying the Colts (11-4) from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in a 31-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) in front of 65,648 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Thursday night.

"It's been a very different season," said Manning, who has quarterbacked the Colts to playoff appearances in nine of the last 10 seasons and who threw two of his three touchdown passes on Thursday night during the second-half rally.

"For us to win eight in a row now after being 3-4, it's really what we had to do. We had no choice but to do that in order to get into the playoffs. It's certainly been a challenge. We've overcome a lot of obstacles, injuries – just different scenarios.

"We've done it as a team, which has been nice, and it was a pretty fitting way to end this game tonight to clinch a playoff berth."

Manning completed his first 17 passes of the game, including all 13 in the first half, and his 23 consecutive completions over two games was one completion shy of an NFL record.

"Peyton Manning is unbelievable," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "He put a lot of it on his shoulders."

With the victory, the Colts clinched not only a wild-card position for their seventh consecutive playoffs appearance, they also clinched the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

"It just seemed like we were going to have to clinch it on the road, and we were probably going to have to come from behind," Dungy said. "It's just been the way the year is. We said at halftime, 'We're not really playing well and they're playing well. We're going to have to play harder and longer than they do and hope for some good things to happen.'

"That's what happened. We didn't go out and necessarily play better in the second half, but we fought and made some good things happen at the end."

The Colts, who started this season 3-4 to slip under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade, made the playoffs as a Wild Card in 2002, then won the last five AFC South titles, a streak that ended two weeks ago when the Tennessee Titans clinched the division.

Afterward, as the media waited for Dungy to make his postgame comments, a loud cheer could be heard from the Colts' locker room.

"It was a big win for us," Dungy said. "It puts us in the playoffs. It was a long fight back from 3-4. To win eight straight the way we won them, to go on the road and win tough games . . I like where we are right now.

"We'll get a chance to play Tennessee next week and find out who we play in the playoffs. It's a good feeling to be in. It's seven times in a row for a bunch of these guys and that says a lot.

"I'm very, very proud of them."

Said Colts safety Bob Sanders, "This is awesome. We came in here to get a win. We knew it was going to be tough. It was a total, total team effort, a 60-minute battle. They fought us the whole way. It's unbelievable to be a part of an organization that is continually in the playoffs every year."

The Colts had led the AFC South from start-to-finish in four of the past five seasons, starting 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0 the past three seasons.

"This is the NFL, what we've gone through and what Jacksonville has gone through," Manning said. "You never take winning for granted. It's hard to win one game and it's extremely hard to win eight in a row like we have."

Said Colts center Jeff Saturday, "You have to take your hat off to our whole team. Each week has been somebody different – offense, defense, special teams. You have somebody stepping up making big plays at the right time and keeping the team in it.

"I'm proud of all the guys and hopefully that will continue as the playoffs go."

The Colts could have clinched a playoff appearance with either a victory Thursday or one over Tennessee in the regular-season finale. There also were a variety of scenarios under which losses by other teams would have put the Colts in the postseason.

But Manning said Dungy was clear about the preferable way to qualify.

"Coach Dungy doesn't use, 'Must Win' very often until we get into the playoffs," Manning said. "He used it last night and said, 'This is a must win. When you have a chance to clinch a playoff spot, you don't want to count on Baltimore and New England (losing). You control your own destiny.'

"When he says that, you obviously realize how serious today's game was. I wanted to come down here and do my part."

But even with Manning's near-perfect night, the Colts not only needed their fourth double-digit road rally of the season, they needed big plays late from the defense.

The Colts, after trailing by 10 points entering the fourth quarter, rallied with a touchdown pass from Manning to Dallas Clark, and a 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, to make it, 24-24.

Colts cornerback Keiwan Ratliff returned an interception 35 yards on the ensuing possession to give Indianapolis its first lead with 4:48 remaining.

"Even though we came in at halftime down 10, nobody believed we were going to lose," Ratliff said.

Defensive end Raheem Brock sacked Jaguars quarterback David Garrard (28-of-41, 329 yards, one touchdown, one interception) on the ensuing possession, forcing a punt. Then, on the Jaguars' final possession, they drove to the Colts 7 with :17 remaining.

On 2nd-and-goal from the 7, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney sacked Garrard for a nine-yard loss, and the Jaguars did not have time to run another play.

"Our defense made some plays," Dungy said. "We hadn't played great all day. We got to the fourth quarter and obviously Keiwan's play was a big play.

"We got a couple of timely sacks when we needed it, and we got the job done."

The Jaguars drove 62 yards on eight plays on the game's first possession, scoring when wide receiver Dennis Northcutt caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Garrard.

The Jaguars extended the lead to 14-0 when Garrard scored on a 2-yard run. The play capped a 17-play, 93-yard drive that consumed 9:35 of the first and second quarters.

The Jaguars on the series converted a 4th-and-1 from their 31 with a 2-yard run by Garrard.

The Colts trimmed the lead in half on the ensuing possession, with Manning throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne. That capped a five-play, 63-yard drive and made it 14-7.

The Colts missed a chance late in the half to trim the lead to four points when kicker Adam Vinatieri missed a 30-yard field goal wide left.

The Jaguars took advantage of the miss by driving 54 yards in eight plays, taking a 17-7 lead when kicker Josh Scobee converted a 44-yard field goal with :01 remaining in the quarter.

Manning completed 13 of 13 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in the half, with the Colts being held to seven yards rushing.

"It was a funny game," Manning said. "We were completing some passes, but we were down 14-0, so that really sort of dominated our thoughts. Their crowd was into it and they're always tough to play at home. They're a division rival, so you knew it was going to be tough.

"We certainly didn't think we were going to be down 14-0 out of the gate."

The Colts reduced the lead to three with 10-yard touchdown pass from Manning to running back Dominic Rhodes with 10:26 remaining in the third quarter.

The Jaguars then drove 76 yards on 14 plays, using 7:58 before running back Montell Owens scored on a 2-yard run with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter.

The Colts earlier this season rallied from deficits of 10 or more points to win at Minnesota (15-point deficit, 18-15 victory), at Houston (17-point deficit, 31-27 victory) and Pittsburgh (10-point deficit, 24-20 victory).

During their eight-game winning streak, they have trailed five times in the second half.

"For a long time there, it was in doubt," Dungy said. "We didn't play our best football and we had some mistakes and things that normally don't happen to us, but . . . I have to give their team a lot of credit for playing a game like this when they're not in the playoff race. They wanted to knock us out for sure. They played well, but I was very proud of our guys for fighting.

"We said at halftime we were going to have to play harder, longer than they did. We made some plays right at the end to win it."

Said Brock, "I expect it to be like that all the way through – close games. You have to make big plays."

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