Colts Lead AFC South by One Game with Seven Weeks Remaining in 2010 Regular Season
INDIANAPOLIS – A glance at the NFL standings left Jim Caldwell but one conclusion.
When it comes to the 2010 post-season chase, as the Colts' second-year head coach sees it, it may not be enough to say things aren't yet over one game past the midway point.
In a very real sense, things haven't started.
"Anything can happen," Caldwell said Monday, a day after the Colts moved into sole possession of the AFC South lead with a 23-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Everybody's got a shot."
The Colts (6-3) the defending AFC South Champions, have won six of eight games, and on Sunday, they moved a game ahead of Tennessee (5-4), which lost at Miami, 29-17. They also remained a game ahead of Jacksonville (5-4), which beat the Houston Texans (4-5) on a 50-yard, last-play Hail Mary.
The Colts have the AFC's third-best record, a game behind New England (7-2) and the New York Jets (7-2) with seven other teams 5-4 or better and two more teams at 4-5.
"Whoever can get hot here and get on a roll is going to be the team that can get themselves in somewhat control," said Caldwell, speaking at his weekly next-day news conference at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "The way this thing is going back and forth every week, it could go all the way up to Week 14, 15 or 16 before everything has been solidified.
"What we have to do is take them one at a time, look at our next opponent and play and play well."
The Colts' next opponent is New England, a team the Colts have played every regular season since 2003, and a team against whom the Colts have won four of the last five regular-season meetings, and five of the last six meetings overall.
The Colts, who visit the Patriots at 4:15 Sunday, have won four of five games, beating Cincinnati despite the absence of several key players, including linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett, running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark, wide receivers Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Blair White, running back Mike Hart, linebacker Clint Session and safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt.
Bullitt, Clark and Gonzalez are out for the season, and with only two experienced receivers in the lineup – four-time Pro Bowl selection Reggie Wayne and third-year veteran Pierre Garcon – Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday completed 20 of 36 passes for 185 yards and no touchdowns with no interceptions.
Donald Brown, making his second consecutive start in place of Addai, rushed for 50 yards on 12 carries, and tight end Jacob Tamme – making a third consecutive start – caught seven passes for 73 yards. Running back Javarris James scored the Colts' lone offensive touchdown on a 3-yard second-quarter run.
"We have pretty high standards around here," Caldwell said. "I don't think you'll ever find us satisfied or feeling comfortable about inconsistent play. We've been getting some of that, and we're not comfortable with that. Those are things we have to improve.
"We're not going to use any excuses. Whoever's in there has to be able to perform the job like we expect it to be done.
"We're trying to measure up to what we've always done. That's our task. That's our goal."
The Colts on Sunday used two first-half Cincinnati turnovers to take a 17-0 lead, then forced three more turnovers in the second half to secure the victory.
"Anytime that you have to deal with a bit of adversity due to setbacks, injuries – things of that nature – to see the guys come together and be able to overcome those things is always a good feeling," Caldwell said. "I think that happened Sunday. You saw a number of new faces, guys that hadn't played a whole lot."
That happened not only on offense, where wide receiver Brandon James caught four passes for 36 yards in his first NFL playing time, but on defense, too.
It particularly happened, Caldwell said, at linebacker.
Pat Angerer, a second-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, made his second start at middle linebacker after starting the past two games on the strong-side. He made the switch to play for Gary Brackett, who missed the game with a toe injury.
"The linebacking corps that played, played extremely well, overall, I think," Caldwell said.
With Angerer moving and starting weak-side linebacker Clint Session out with an elbow injury, Philip Wheeler and Kavell Conner started for a defense that held Cincinnati's offensive unit to 30 yards rushing on 19 carries. The Bengals also had a 42-yard run on special teams.
The Colts' defense also forced five turnovers, with an interception return by linebacker Tyjuan Hagler setting up a second-half field goal and cornerback Kelvin Hayden's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown giving the Colts a 10-0 first-quarter lead.
"You get five turnovers in a ballgame – that's a big day, plus three sacks," Caldwell said. "Those are the things that give you cause to pause and say, 'Some guys really stepped up.'"
Safety Aaron Francisco – like Hagler, not on an NFL roster in Week 1 – intercepted Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in the second half.
Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis each had a sack on the Bengals' final drive, and Freeney also forced a fumble that stopped a Cincinnati drive late in the fourth quarter.
"Freeney and Mathis had some huge plays when they counted," Caldwell said.