A TOUGH TEST

The Colts (10-4), a playoff team each of the past six seasons, moved closer to a seventh consecutive postseason appearance Sunday afternoon, pulling away from a fourth-quarter tie for a 31-21 victory over the Detroit Lions (0-14) in front of 66,281 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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Colts Pull Away in the Fourth Quarter for 31-21 Victory over Detroit
INDIANAPOLIS – On a mid-December afternoon, the Colts made history Sunday, moving a step closer to the postseason in the process.

But the latest step wasn't easy. Not even close.

And that surprised the Colts not a bit.

"Every game in the NFL is tough," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "We expected this one to be tough, and it was. . . . It's something we expected. These guys had played a lot of close games on the road. It's not like we didn't expect them to come out and play tough. . . .

"It was not really much different than we expected."

The Colts, after leading by seven and 11 points, lost the lead early in the fourth quarter, then scored the game's final 10 points to:

• Win a seventh consecutive game.

• Secure at least 10 victories for a seventh consecutive season.

• Move to within one victory of a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

The victory was the sixth time during the seven-game winning streak that the Colts have either trailed or been tied with their opponent in the fourth quarter.

"It has sort of been the theme of our season during this little winning streak," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said after completing 28 of 37 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions for a passer rating of 110.0. "They have kind of been fourth-quarter games.

"We were playing against a team today, not a record."

Said Colts offensive tackle Ryan Diem, "Every team has good players who have a lot of pride and they're going to go out and play hard regardless of their record. We knew (Lions Head) Coach (Rod) Marinelli was going to have them fired up and ready to go and that we were going to get their best shot.

"You hear it a lot, but we've kind of jelled. I can't speak for all of the positions, but I feel like up front we're getting better and better every week.

"This is the kind of momentum we need to carry into the playoffs."

The Colts, who now have won at least seven consecutive games in an NFL record five consecutive seasons, led by as much as 21-10 at halftime before Detroit rallied to tie it, 21-21, early in the fourth quarter.

The Colts then drove 88 yards on the ensuing possession, with running back Dominic Rhodes – who rushed for 86 yards on 20 carries starting for injured regular Joseph Addai – scoring on a one-yard run with 8:39 remaining.

"I think we should have played a lot better," Rhodes said.

"If you sleep on anybody, they'll jump up and bite you," Colts defensive end Robert Mathis said. "Records mean nothing."

Kicker Adam Vinatieri's 31-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining secured the victory.

The Colts, who were eliminated from AFC South title contention for the first time since 2002 a week ago, can clinch a Wild Card berth with a victory in either of their final two games – at Jacksonville (5-9) or at home against Tennessee (12-2).

Entering the weekend, the Colts needed a victory over the Lions and two of the following three teams – the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or New England Patriots – to lose to clinch a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

The Jets beat the Buffalo Bills, 31-27, Sunday, and the Dolphins won at home over San Francisco, 14-9. New England visited Oakland Sunday.

The victory also enabled the Colts to maintain their status as the AFC's No. 5 seed – and the top seed in the Wild Card standings. They held that spot over Baltimore entering the weekend because of a superior conference record than – and a head-to-head victory over – the Ravens.

"We're doing some things better," Dungy said. "The consistency is better, and I think special teams we're playing much better than we were early. When we avoid penalties and turnovers, we can play with anyone.

"In this streak, we have done that for the most part. We had some penalties that hurt us today. We had some turnovers, and in the games from here on out, we're not going to be able to have those, but we're making progress."

The Lions kept the game close through the fourth quarter partly because they turned two fumbled Colts punt returns into field goals of 51 and 31 yards by kicker Jason Hanson.

The Colts took the lead quickly, driving 78 yards on 14 plays on the game's first possession and scoring on a 1-yard dive by running back Rhodes, starting for injured Joseph Addai. One play before Rhodes' run, Manning converted 4th-and-1 with a quick, 6-yard pass to tight end Dallas Clark.

The Colts held the Lions without a first down on the ensuing possession, but took advantage of a Colts turnover to cut the lead to four points.

After Detroit's first possession, a punt by Lions punter Nick Harris hit Colts returner Keiwan Ratliff seconds after Ratliff was bumped by a Lions player.

Lions linebacker Anthony Cannon recovered at the Colts 35, and four plays later, Hanson's 51-yard field goal – his NFL-record tying eighth 50-yard field goal without a miss this season – cut the Indianapolis lead to 7-3.

The Colts pushed the lead to 14-3 with a nine-play, 56-yard drive midway through the second quarter.

Running back Chad Simpson capped the drive with a two-yard run for his first career touchdown.

The Lions then cut the lead back to four with a three-play 69-yard drive, a possession that ended when second-year wide receiver Calvin Johnson – a player Colts President Bill Polian this past week called the best wide receiver to enter the NFL in several years – scored on an athletic, 33-yard touchdown reception.

That made it 14-10, Colts, with 3:36 remaining before halftime.

"We weren't as sharp as we'd like to be," Dungy said. "Some of that you have to credit to Detroit, and some of it to us. I thought we had a good week of practice and were ready to go, but every time we got a little margin, we couldn't make the play we needed to put the game away.

Of Johnson, Dungy added, "We knew they were going to throw some deep balls up to Calvin Johnson. He's a great player, but you have to go up and make those plays. You can't let them catch deep balls in double coverage."

The Colts again pushed the lead to 11 on their final possession of the half, a drive keyed by Clark.

Clark, who broke his own single-season franchise record for receptions by a tight end on the drive, not only capped the possession with a leaping, three-yard touchdown reception, he also caught three other passes for 54 yards.

Hanson pulled the Lions to within eight with a 31-yarder with 10:00 remaining in the third quarter. Neither team scored again in the quarter, and the Lions used an extended drive early in the final quarter to tie it before the Colts retook the lead by covering 88 yards in seven plays.

Manning passed 39 yards to Reggie Wayne (seven receptions, 104 yards) to give Indianapolis 1st-and-goal at the 1, and one play later, Rhodes gave Indianapolis a lead it never relinquished."

"I think we were cool," Clark said. "There was a little TV timeout, and you could kind of feel in the huddle – there wasn't much talking. Everyone really knew what we had to do. It wasn't ideal field position, but guys really tightened down and little things we were doing all game – little penalties or little miscues here or there that had really prevented some long drives – we didn't do that.

"We knew we had to go down and score. It was great to see everyone have that mindset and really take it at them and get the touchdown."

The Colts will visit Jacksonville (5-9) on Thursday night.

"We've got a short turnaround now," Dungy said. "We need one more game to get ourselves in the playoffs. It's a team that beat us here (23-21 in Week 3). I know they would like to keep us out, so we have our work cut out for us.

"We'll continue to work, come back to practice on Tuesday and get ready to go."

Said Mathis, "We don't just want to get there (to the postseason). We want to try to finish our mission. We're not satisfied with getting to the playoffs, but you do have to get there before you can get to Tampa (site of the Super Bowl)."

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