FOCUSED ON THE GOAL

Head Coach Tony Dungy said the only thing that matters for the Colts entering the final three weeks is that if they win their final three games, they will qualify for a seventh consecutive playoff appearance. And that matters.

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Colts Just Focused on Winning Against Lions, Dungy Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The goal is very much in sight.

But Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said although the goal can be seen, it is no way yet attained, which he said should make a few things perfectly clear entering the season's final three weeks.

The records of opponents don't much matter.

The Colts' status within their division doesn't, either.

The recent past – as good as it has been for the Colts – also matters little.

Dungy, in his seventh season as the Colts' head coach, said the only thing that matters for the Colts entering the final three weeks is that if they win their final three games they will qualify for a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

And that matters. Very much.

"For us, it's Game 14 that we have to win," Dungy said as the Colts (9-4) prepared to play the Detroit Lions (0-13) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

"That's the only way we should look at it."

If that approach sounds familiar, it should.

The Colts have taken the approach since late October, and in the weeks since, have negotiated a tricky AFC-only schedule to rise from a losing record to the forefront of the AFC wild-card chase.

I think we have just gotten back to some of the basic fundamental things that we won with in the past," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said after a 35-3 home victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.

The Colts, after back-to-back losses to Green Bay and Tennessee in late November moved them to 3-4 after seven games for the first time in more than a decade, have won their last six games, with all victories coming against AFC opponents.

Of the six victories, the first five came by a total of 20 points, with the Colts rallying in the second half to beat New England (18-15), Houston (33-27), Pittsburgh (24-20) and Cleveland (10-6) and holding off a San Diego rally to beat the Chargers, 23-20, on a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

The Chargers, Steelers and Cleveland victories came on the road, with the Colts becoming the first road team in five seasons to overcome a 10-point deficit to win in Pittsburgh.

They also beat Cleveland without scoring an offensive touchdown.

"Certainly at 3-4 you find yourself in a hole," said Manning, who has begun to be mentioned in some national circles as a Most Valuable Candidate with 22 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.

Manning, the MVP in 2003 and 2004, has played in the last six Pro Bowls, and this season – after missing the preseason and training camp after offseason knee surgery – he threw three touchdown passes and four interceptions in the first three games.

In the last 10 games, he has 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and he has thrown two or more touchdown passes in eight of the last 10 games. He also has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in five of those games. The Colts are 8-2 during that span.

"We really have kind of stepped our game up a little bit as far as protecting the ball better, being better in the red zone, trying to eliminate some penalties," Manning said. "Our special teams have done a better job. Offensively and defensively we are sort of feeding off of one another. When one is down the other is picking them up. Ideally you want both of them to play great at the same time.

"It's truly been a one-game-at-a-time mentality since we have been 3-4. That will be the philosophy the rest of this month."

The Colts, the AFC South champions from 2003-2007, were eliminated from division title contention Sunday when the Tennessee Titans (12-1) beat the Cleveland Browns, 28-9.

The Titans, who last won the South in 2002 – the first season of the division's existence – have clinched by ensuring they will have a superior record in common games, which would be the third tiebreaker scenario if the teams finished tied at 12-4.

"We just have to congratulate them," Dungy said of the TItans. "You win 12 out of 13 . . . they deserve it. We had some shots. We lost a couple of games that are haunting us right now. But they did a good job. They won the division and they can start looking at the playoffs now where everybody else is sort of playing their way in.

"They've done a good job and they'll represent the division well. We want to be there with them and see if we can get two teams in."

But Dungy has said the past several weeks that once the Colts lost to the Titans in late October – a loss that moved them four games behind then-unbeaten Tennessee – the focus among players and coaches was to secure a wild-card berth.

To do that, Dungy said the Colts needed to put together a streak of victories against a November schedule that included several teams – including defending AFC division New England, San Diego and Pittsburgh – that were expected to be in playoff contention.

The Colts did just that, finishing November 5-0, and after Sunday's victory over Cincinnati, they hold the No. 5 seed over Baltimore (9-4) because of a superior conference record to the Ravens and a head-to-head victory at home against the Ravens in early October.

The Colts and Baltimore lead the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, who are tied atop the AFC East at 8-5. One of those teams likely will win the division. Denver (8-5) leads the AFC West by three games over San Diego and can clinch the division with a victory Sunday, and Pittsburgh (10-3) leads the North by two games.

Four division champions advance to the playoffs from each conference along with the non-division winners with the best record.

The Colts will play host to the Detroit Sunday, and will visit Jacksonville (4-9) the following Thursday night before finishing the season at home against Tennessee.

"You know that you're there, and you've put yourself in position where if you keep winning, you're going to be in," Dungy said. "We have at least two games we have to win. If we win the next two, we'll be in and that's the way we're looking at it."

The game against Detroit will be the Colts' second in as many weeks against a team that has been eliminated from playoff contention. And although Colts President Bill Polian said the desire to avoid becoming the first team to go through a 16-game season without a victory will motivate the Lions, he also said that isn't the only factor making Sunday difficult for Indianapolis.

"It is a team that will be fighting tooth and nail for their pride," Polian said. "They certainly don't want to be the only team to go through a season 0-16, No. 1, and No. 2, they have a potent offense. . . .

"It doesn't matter who we're playing and it doesn't matter what their record is or what our record is. We want to play the best we can.

"If we do that, the results will usually take care of themselves."

The Lions, who have lost 20 of 21 games, rank 30th in the NFL in total offense, and because of injuries, have started three quarterbacks, recently signing former Minnesota Vikings starter Daunte Culpepper out of retirement.

He has started the last five games, and has thrown four touchdowns with six interceptions.

The Lions, despite the injuries at quarterback and their record, have had several chances to win this season, with five of their losses coming by eight points or less. That total includes two losses by a total of six points to AFC North-leading Minnesota, as well as a four-point loss to playoff-contending Chicago.

"The Lions have had some, I don't know whether to say tough luck, but they've had some games that they really could've won, should've won, and just haven't gotten the job done in the fourth quarter," Dungy said. "We'll look at the tape and look at their players and what they're doing. We're not going to take them lightly.

"You can't worry about that (the Lions' record) at this time of year. We have one game this week that we have to win and it happens to be Detroit. We're happy it's a home game and we're going to try to use that to our advantage, but whoever it is you have to win these games this time of year."

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