As Always, Colts Need and Want to Win, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – In a very real sense, Peyton Manning sees this game no differently.
Manning, the Colts' eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said this week's AFC South showdown with the Tennessee Titans – the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team – is very much an imant game, a high-profile game the Colts very much need to win.
The season is approaching the midway point.
The Titans lead the Colts by three games.
So, yes, Manning said, the game is critical and important and many of the other words that have been attached to it by observers an analysts this week. But Manning said if it is indeed a "must-win" game, then something else is true, too:
That as far as he is concerned, there isn't any other kind.
"I've never played a game, really, where that wasn't the goal and that wasn't what you talked about – that we need to win this game, that we want to win this game," Manning said as the Colts (3-3) prepared to play the Titans (6-0) at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., Monday at 8:30 p.m.
"I don't really know what the specific label to this game is, but I know we need to have a good week of practice, and it's certainly an important game, because they are the leaders in the division, and you certainly don't want to get too far behind in the division.
"I don't really use those terms, but I know it's important and it's a game we're going to need to play well in if we're going to have a chance."
The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions, started the last three seasons 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0, respectively, leading the division wire-to-wire en route to the titles. This season, they have struggled for consistency, according to Head Coach Tony Dungy, and after a two-game winning streak following a Week 4 bye, they lost, 34-14, to the Green Bay Packers, their widest margin of defeat since December of 2006.
The Titans, who made the playoffs on the final weekend of the 2007 regular season, have been one of the NFL's most consistent and productive teams early in the season.
They are 6-0 for the first time in their history, and are the Colts' first opponent this season to enter the game with a winning record.
"This will be the best team we have played," Dungy said Wednesday. "We have to show we can go out there and play."
Dungy said the Colts have done that at times this season, but that they have yet to do so with consistency. After losing the season opener, the Colts rallied from a 15-point deficit to win at Minnesota, then lost to Jacksonville on a 51-yard field goal with four seconds remaining.
That left them 1-2 at the bye, after which they rallied from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win at Houston before beating Baltimore, 31-3, for their first victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Then came this past Sunday's loss to Green Bay, a game in which the Colts committed 12 penalties for 110 yards, a performance that prompted Dungy to call it the sloppiest of his tenures and to say penalties were the team's top issue entering the week.
On Wednesday, Dungy said the Colts' goal for the week was simple:
Play consistently, and play well, against an elite team.
"For us, where we're sitting, we have to play a good game at some point down the road and prove to ourselves we can play well against a team that is an upper-echelon team," Dungy said.
Dungy was asked if the Colts doubted they could do so.
"I don't know it's doubt, but we haven't done it yet," Dungy said. "We haven't played the type of game that we need to play to be where we want to go. I think everybody knows we can do that, but we haven't done it yet this year."
To do so, Manning said they will have to do it against what he called the league's hottest team.
The Titans feature one of the NFL's top defenses, led by a line that includes Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, as well as an offensive line that hasn't allowed a sack in four games.
The Titans rank fourth in the NFL in rushing, and have packaged a ball-control, few-mistakes offenses with a defense that hasn't allowed more than 17 points in a game since last December. Tennessee leads the NFL in turnover margin, having forced 14 and committed just eight.
"We have a tough challenge on Monday, going down there to play on the road," Manning said. "That's kind of where my focus is, and what's on my plate."
As for the Titans' focus, Dungy and Colts center Jeff Saturday said it's likely the same place the Colts' focus would be if the situations entering the game were reversed.
The Titans not only lead the division by three with 10 remaining, they have a 2-0 record in the division, having beaten Jacksonville and Houston. A victory over the Colts would move them to 7-0 and 3-0, with the Colts at 3-4 and 1-2 and Jacksonville no better than 4-3 and 2-1.
"I don't know if it's a statement game," Dungy said, "but I know we have been on the other side of the coin a few times in the last couple of years. I've always told our team, 'Hey, this is the time when you want to put the other guys away: when we've got a two-game lead . . . if we can beat them, it's really going to make it unlikely for them to be able to bounce back and win the division. We take control of things right now.' You always want to do that.''
Said Saturday, "We've been in this position before and we've talked about it a number of times. This is when they want to put us away. They know with a win, it will make it very tough for us to win the division and we'll be chasing a wild-card spot for the playoffs. I think we go down with that mentality, knowing we need to win to keep ourselves in the division hunt."