BACK IN THE SOUTH

The Colts have made the playoffs the last six seasons, and a huge reason has been their success in the AFC South. They have won 28 of 36 games against the South since the division's 2002 inception and have won the last five division titles.

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Colts to Open AFC South Schedule at Home Sunday Against Jacksonville
INDIANAPOLIS – The opponent's record means nothing to Kelvin Hayden.

Hayden, the Colts' fourth-year cornerback, said he knows the Colts' opponent Sunday has yet to win a game this season, and he said he knows there are those who think that makes the Jacksonville Jaguars an angry team, even a desperate one.

But Hayden said that's not what's imant about Sunday.

What matters to Hayden is this:

The game is an AFC South game. And it's at home.

And Hayden said little means more than that.

"If they were 2-0, we'd still look at it the same," Hayden said this week as the Colts (1-1) began preparing to play the Jaguars (0-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 4:15 p.m.

"It's a big week for us, because it's a division game. Those games are must-wins. It's a must that we get those and a must that we get this W, because we don't want to be 1-2. I look at it like that. We want to continue to grow off this win we got the previous weekend and continue to get better."

And make no mistake:

When Colts players speak of a division game as a must-win game, they mean it, particularly when that game is a home game.

The Colts, 18-15 winners over the Minnesota Vikings last week, have made the playoffs six consecutive seasons, and in each of the last five seasons, they have made the postseason as the AFC South champion.

The Colts and the New England Patriots of the AFC East are the only NFL teams with active streaks of five division titles.

A division title, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said, always has been important, but he said it's far more important under the NFL's current format in which winners of the four divisions and two wild-card teams make the playoffs. Under the format, a division winner is ensured of at least one home playoff game and the division winners with the two best records are ensured of a home game and a first-round playoff bye.

"It's a big game," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's a big weekend for the AFC South all around. Houston and Tennessee play. We play Jacksonville. Like Coach Dungy does every year, he puts extra effort on these division games. You try to compete every week against other teams in your division.

"That's kind of the first team you're checking after your own game, to see what Jacksonville did or Tennessee did, or Houston did. Jacksonville is an excellent team."

Said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, "This is a division game. It counts twice. It's very important we win this game so we get some type of advantage if there is a tiebreaker."

The Colts since the 2002 inception of the South have won 28 of 36 games against division opponents, winning nine of 12 meetings against Jacksonville, 11 of 12 against Houston and eight of 12 against Tennessee, the only team to win the division other than the Colts (2002).

"They're the tough games and that's why we've won the division (five consecutive seasons)," Dungy said. "We've had a better division record every year. To get up and play well every time you play a division opponent is hard to do. Our Super Bowl year (2006) is the toughest one we've had, at 3-3. That second time around, we weren't able to win those games."

Until losing the opener this season, the Colts had led or shared the lead in the South 60 consecutive weeks, and never since the division's inception have they been more than one game out of first place.

In 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007, they led the division from the beginning to end of the season, doing so last season in a division that finished with three playoff teams and 42 overall victories – the most for a division since the 2002 realignment.

"It's a very competitive division and this week, it's going to be a dog fight," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said. "We know what we have when we play Jacksonville. It's one of our rivals. Obviously, it's going to be a tough game, but the AFC South as a whole – the competition has greatly increased since I've been here."

Said Freeney, "The division's tough. There are no easy games. It doesn't matter who we play in the division, it's going to be a tough game. They know us. We know them."

Brackett said that's particularly true against Jacksonville, the team that has finished closest to the Colts in the division the past four seasons. In 2004, the Jaguars finished alone in second in the division at 9-7, three games behind Indianapolis. In 2005, the Jaguars again finished second in the division – this time at 12-4, making the playoffs as a wild-card entrant two games behind the Colts.

In 2006, the Jaguars finished tied for second with Tennessee at 8-8 – four games behind the Colts – and last season they again finished second, ending the season 11-5. They made the playoffs as a wild-card two games behind the Colts.

The Colts swept Jacksonville in 2002, 2005 and last season. Indianapolis beat Jacksonville, 29-7, in October last season, then won in Indianapolis in December, 28-25, with the Jaguars' last victory in the series coming in 2006 – 44-17 in Jacksonville.

The Colts have won five of the last six meetings.

"It's definitely a special feeling," Brackett said of playing Jacksonville. "That's the easiest way to get into the playoffs. You win your division, you're a guaranteed seed in the playoffs. We know that. We just want to start off fast not only in this game, but in our division just to get that one game lead over those guys."

Making Sunday's game particularly important for the Colts, Dungy said, is the location. While the Colts' record in the division has been key, Dungy said equally as important has been the team's ability to win division home games.

The team is 15-3 at home against South opponents, losing once to Tennessee in 2002 – a game that helped Tennessee to the season sweep that enabled the Titans to clinch the division with a week remaining that season – and once to Jacksonville in 2004. The loss to the Jaguars in 2004 pushed the Colts into second place – the last time they were out of first place until this year's regular-season opener.

The other home division loss came to Tennessee in last year's regular-season finale, a game played after the Colts had clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

"We have to win home games, period, especially division home games," Freeney said. "It's important. Those games, you're supposed to win. We have to get those. The road division games, they're hard enough. They're going to be tough to win. You need to get it done on the road also, but home, you have to.

"It's kind of like if you watch basketball playoffs, what you have to do is you have to win at home. It's the same kind of mentality."

Said Dungy, "You know the pressure's always on the home team. You just feel like when you have your division home games you have to win them. Whether they're at the beginning of the year or at the end of the year, those are the ones you have to win."

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