A SHORT, TOUGH WEEK

The Colts, who have lost consecutive games by double digits for the first time in seven years, return home for the first time in three weeks on Sunday on a short week. Head Coach Tony Dungy said although it's not an easy situation, it's one the Colts can handle.

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Colts Can Handle Difficult Situation, Dungy Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The situation isn't easy. Not even close.

Tony Dungy, in his seventh season as the Colts' head coach, said this week playing the New England Patriots – a perennial NFL power and the five-time defending AFC East champions – in a normal circumstance is difficult enough.

And for the Colts, these circumstances are decidedly not normal.

They're under .500.

They're four games behind in a division they have won five consecutive seasons.

They have lost two consecutive games by double digits for the first time since 2001, the season before Dungy arrived as head coach, and although they will return home to play at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time in three weeks on Sunday, they will do so on a short week after an emotional, difficult division loss.

Not an easy situation, Dungy said this week.

But one the Colts must handle, and Dungy said he believes they will.

"It's a short week and it's tough," Dungy said as the Colts (3-4), the AFC South champions the last five seasons, prepared to play the Patriots (5-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 8:15 p.m.

"You invest a lot into it and don't have the results you need. You have to be able to bounce back. We don't have as long to bounce back. Knowing this group, I think we will."

The Colts, after winning two consecutive games following a Week 4 bye week, have lost two consecutive games – 34-14 to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field two weeks ago and 31-21 to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Tenn., this past Monday.

The victory moved the Titans – the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team – four games ahead of the Colts, Jacksonville and Houston, the latter three of whom are in a three-way tie for second place. Tennessee also has a 3-0 record in the division.

The Jaguars are 2-1 in the South, the Colts are 1-2 and the Texans are 0-3.

The Colts – a playoff team the last six seasons – currently are tied with Jacksonville, Houston, Miami and Cleveland for the eighth-best record in the conference.

The four division winners qualify for the postseason, along with two wild-card teams.

The Colts last week talked of the Tennessee game as a last realistic chance to maintain their hopes of a sixth consecutive division title, and after the loss, Dungy said the loss indeed likely ended that possibility.

But he and Colts players also said that doesn't mean the season is lost.

"There's still a lot of football left," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said. "There are still a lot of games left in the season. We just have to go back next week at home, against another AFC opponent, and try to get a victory.

"We're going to stick together, obviously, and we just have to make those plays when we have to. It's three or four plays in a game that really could turn this thing around. We just happened to be on the opposite end of those plays."

While the Colts have made their last five playoff appearances as division titlists, and while a lofty regular-season record can ensure home playoff games, playing at home hasn't been a necessity for postseason success for the Colts – or for recent eventual Super Bowl champions.

The Colts three times in the last nine seasons have qualified as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the postseason, thereby earning a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the Divisional Playoffs. In each of those seasons, they lost their first playoff game – to Tennessee in 1999, to Pittsburgh in 2005 and to San Diego last season.

The Colts' deepest postseason advancements have come in years in which they did not have home-field advantage. In 2003, Indianapolis qualified for the AFC Championship Game by first winning a wild-card playoff game over Denver at home then beating No. 2 seed Kansas City, 38-31, in Kansas City to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl as the AFC's No. 3 seed, beating Kansas City at home in the first round and Baltimore in Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

The last three Super Bowl champions – the 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Colts and the 2007 New York Giants – all had to win four postseason games, and the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants won as postseason wild-card entrants.

"There's still a long way to go," Dungy said. "We're at the halfway point. There are a lot of teams in there in that three-, four-win area right where we are. We're going to start playing a lot of those guys as we come on.

"We have to get a home win and you can't get a winning streak until you get the first one."

This week, the Colts will play a familiar opponent at a strikingly familiar time in the season.

The Patriots, though, will be unfamiliar in one significant sense. They will be playing without last year's National Football League Most Valuable Player, quarterback Tom Brady, who is out for the season after sustaining a knee injury in the season opener.

The Patriots, who lost in Super Bowl XLII following the NFL's first unbeaten regular season in 35 years a year ago, have lost two one-sided games – at home against Miami and at San Diego – but still have won four of six games since Brady's injury and are tied with Buffalo atop the AFC East.

"Offensively, while it's not Tom Brady, it's still a stellar cast and one of the best-coached teams every year," Colts President Bill Polian said. "They'll concede nothing and be prepared for everything, so it's a very tough matchup."

Because of their regular-season success, the Colts and Patriots have been regular opponents in recent seasons, and have played at least once annually every season since 2003. In the last three seasons – as is the case this season – the game has been played the first weekend of November, and with the exception of last season, the game has been played in prime time each season.

Since Dungy's 2002 arrival, the Patriots have won five of eight meetings between the teams, with the Patriots winning regular-season meetings in 2003, 2004 and last season and the Colts winning in the regular season in 2005 and 2006.

The Patriots won postseason meetings following the 2003 and 2004 seasons, with the Colts beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game following the 2006 season.

But if the time of the game is the same, for the Colts at least, the circumstances are strikingly different. The Colts not only have qualified for six consecutive postseasons, they typically have done so on the strength of consistent, fast starts.

They started 5-0 in 2003, 13-0 in 2005, 9-0 in 2006 and 7-0 last season, and in none of those seasons did they ever trail in the division. In each of the last three regular-season meetings with the Patriots, the Colts have entered the game undefeated.

That won't be the case this season, and the circumstances won't be normal for either team, none of which Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said should have much impact on a game between two teams as familiar with one another as division rivals.

"It seems like this is a division game going back to all of the games we have played against them in recent years," Belichick said. "We have a lot of respect for the Colts - Tony Dungy, (President) Bill Polian, the organization and what they do and how well and consistently they do it. I know it will be a dynamic atmosphere up there Sunday night, a lot of noise, a lot of energy [and a] new stadium.

"I am sure it will be very challenging for us and hopefully we will be prepared, up for it and ready to go."

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