INDIANAPOLIS –A couple of weeks ago, observers around the Colts commented to Chuck Pagano that opponents he was facing were in playoff mode.
Pagano countered that every game is like a playoff outing because the goal is to win every time the Colts take the field.
With a win in Cincinnati Sunday meaning a division title is earned, the focus really is on winning a game because that is the natural mindset.
"We're aware of it (clinching), but we don't get distracted by it," said Vontae Davis. "We look at it as one game. We know it's an important game. We just take it one game at a time. Right now, we're just worrying about Cincinnati."
Pagano rigidly structures each week to follow the same preparation mode. Adhering to the process yields results – 19 wins in 28 games since 2012.
"We go out to win every football game, but we're going out to win because it's a football game first and foremost," said Andrew Luck. "That's our approach. It's not going to change."
December football means teams fortunate to be in contention must deal with impending distractions.
As the final quarter of the season starts tonight, 29 teams still harbor playoff hopes. Twenty are either in or within one game of a playoff spot. Five more teams are within two games of a coveted postseason ticket.
Players everywhere are hearing the same buzz as are the Colts.
"We just need to keep winning games," said Dallas' Tony Romo. "More than anything, you've got to keep stacking wins together and then see where you're at in the end."
The Colts and Bengals both are 8-4 division leaders. The Colts can clinch the AFC South flag with a win or a Tennessee loss, or if both teams tie on Sunday. Cincinnati holds a two-game lead in the AFC North, but cannot clinch anything this weekend.
Division championships mean caps and shirts, but those items, while significant in their own right, are not the driving force for Sunday.
"It's an important game," said Redding. "We all know what's at stake here and that's (a division title) one of our goals. We just got to keep grinding – go to Cincinnati and do what we got to do to get this win."
To Jerrell Freeman, this game day holds its usual significance.
"I'm trying to win them all. It doesn't really matter," said Freeman. "One win? That's fine. I'm trying to get them all to New York."
Pagano established his bedrock on weekly accountability. It helped last year when the team went 9-3 in his absence on its way to an 11-5 record.
Last year's double-digit victory total was good for second place in the division. Indianapolis got to game 14 at Houston with a chance to keep the Texans from winning the AFC South.
A 12-point loss there dashed the hopes, but the club bounced back with two wins to nail down the AFC's fifth playoff seed.
This game carries ramifications. Pagano and the players are hit with the premise frequently. They keep blinders on and prepare only for the immediate task at hand.
"I don't talk about (the playoff possibilities)," said Pagano. "I don't look at it. I couldn't tell you quite honestly any of that stuff right now. Pay zero attention to it.
"Our focus is on Cincinnati and Cincinnati only. If we take care of business, good things will happen."