Colts Hope to Build Off Late-Season Winning Streak, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – In one sense, Peyton Manning said not much changes.
Manning, the Colts' 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said while the Colts this week indeed are preparing for the post-season, it's not as if they haven't spent the past few weeks in the same mode.
At the same time . . .
Well, at the same time, Manning said Tuesday, the post-season does have a different feel.
And the Colts' first-round playoff opponent? The New York Jets?
They give the week a different feel, too, Manning said, noting that that feel has everything to do with the Jets being good. Very, very good.
"There's no question we're playing possibly the best team we've played in some time," Manning said Tuesday as the AFC South Champion Colts (10-6) prepared to play the Jets (11-5) in an AFC Wild Card game at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday at 8 p.m.
"There's a reason they're in the playoffs. Them and New England kind of battled for the division. They're very talented and they're playing well. We'll have our hands full."
The Colts, after starting the season 6-6 and entering the final month of the season in second-place in the AFC South, rallied to win their final four games to clinch a seventh division title in the last eight seasons. They also tied an NFL record with their ninth consecutive post-season appearance.
The Colts made their run with a lineup featuring a slew of young players following season-ending injuries to players such as tight end Dallas Clark, wide receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez, safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt and cornerback Jerraud Powers.
The team also played extended periods without linebacker Gary Brackett, running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Clint Session, running backs Donald Brown and Mike Hart and defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Dan Muir.
Session, Hayden and Muir missed this past Sunday's regular-season finale, and while Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said Tuesday it's too early in the week to know their status for Sunday, Brackett – the team's starting middle linebacker and defensive captain – said the reality is this:
Playing with new players has been the norm this season.
And whatever happens Saturday the team will adjust.
"I think you are prideful – just having those guys come in, step up and make plays," Brackett said. "I think all season we still expected to be here and still expected to make the playoffs, so I won't say that I am surprised. You are excited that you fought so hard to get here. Every year with the turnover on the roster there are new guys and are they battle-tested? I think the whole team is this year just with what we had to go through during the regular season to get to the post-season."
The Colts beat the Tennessee Titans, 30-28; the Jacksonville Jaguars, 34-24; the Oakland Raiders, 31-26; and the Titans, 23-20. They clinched the South on the final Sunday of the regular season, with the four-game winning streak their longest of the season.
They had won at least five consecutive games each season from 2003-09.
"Hopefully, we can build off some of the momentum that we've established," Manning said. "We feel fortunate to be playing this week. We don't take it for granted, to be in the playoffs. We feel very fortunate. We feel like the last four games really have been playoff games for us.
"For the most part, had we lost any of those four, we probably would have been out of contention. We've been playing with a sense of urgency. . .
"We've won four in a row, and built off the previous win the week before. Hopefully, we can keep that going, but we're facing a different animal this week."
Colts defensive players on Tuesday talked extensively about returning to a simpler, speed-oriented approach following a three-game November losing streak, and Manning on Tuesday also spoke of what happened to reverse the team's fortune.
The Colts lost to the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys on consecutive weeks in November, their first three-game losing streak since 2002. The Colts that season lost three consecutive games to slip to 4-4 before making the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
They also finished 10-6 that season and played the Jets in the first round of the playoffs.
"We lost three in a row, and were slowly kind of watching ourselves about to be out of the mix," Manning said. "We felt lucky that other teams in our division were sort of losing and beating up on each other and that we still sort of had a chance.
"We had a Thursday night game (against Tennessee), and we thought if we could just get one win, and get some positive momentum in the building and get guys feeling good about each other, it could change some things. That Tennessee game was tight. We made a couple of plays in the fourth quarter and got the win.
"We've been able to sort of build off of that."
The result of the late-season run is a game against the team the Colts beat in the AFC Championship game this past January, and Manning Tuesday called the Jets – coached by Rex Ryan and featuring Ryan's aggressive, multi-look defense – an extremely challenging team for which to prepare.
"It takes you absolutely forever to watch one game with their defense," Manning said. "It takes you some time. I feel like we're already behind the eight ball with a short week. With a Saturday game, you're a day short on your preparation. It's a full-time cram session."
Because of the quality of the Jets' defense, Manning said taking advantage of opunities will be key. The Colts last week beat the Titans kicking three field goals, including twice in the first half.
"We'd love to get back to scoring some touchdowns, and putting seven points on the board," Manning said, adding that while the 2010 season has had a different feel, what matters as the post-season begins is building on the last four weeks.
"We feel very fortunate to be playing this week. We're 10-6. Heck, two teams in the NFC went 10-6 and aren't in the playoffs. We feel fortunate to be in the playoffs and to have a home game. We don't take it for granted. It has been different because we've had some coaches change, and we've had different personnel changes throughout the year.
"There hasn't been a lot of continuity, but the past few weeks, there has been a little bit more. Hopefully, we can build off of that."