GETTING BETTER

Anthony Gonzalez and Reggie Wayne, the Colts' leading receivers, returned to practice Friday, as did safety Antoine Bethea and defensive end Robert Mathis. The foursome missed practice the first two days of the week and they were among several players missing at least one practice this week.

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Wayne, Gonzalez, Bethea, Mathis Return to Practice as Colts Prepare for Houston
INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts moved closer to full health on Friday.

And while Head Coach Tony Dungy said the circumstances surrounding practice this week – with a few starters missing a day and a few more missing more two – aren't ideal, they're hardly unusual.

The NFL season is entering its 11th week. Playing through aches and pains and bumps?

That's part of the deal in mid-November.

Anthony Gonzalez and Reggie Wayne, the Colts' leading receivers, returned to practice Friday, as did Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea and defensive end Robert Mathis. The foursome missed practice the first two days of the week and they were among several players missing at least one practice for a variety of reasons this week.

None of which Dungy said is odd given the circumstances.

"Coming off two very physical games (victories over New England and Pittsburgh), it's just one of those things that happens," Dungy said as the Colts (5-4) prepared to play the Houston Texans (3-6) in an AFC South game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

"You just have to be able to practice well with no pads. You have to be able to learn in a lot of different ways, see it and visualize and go through it without practicing.

"Fortunately, we have a lot of guys who can do that."

Dungy said all four likely will play Sunday.

"Getting them back will help us," he said.

The Colts on Friday released their third injury reof the week, with Bethea (ankle), Gonzalez (hamstring), Wayne (ankle), Mathis (foot), wide receiver Roy Hall (knee), cornerback Kelvin Hayden (hamstring), defensive tackle Daniel Muir (hamstring), cornerback Keiwan Ratliff (quadriceps), safety Bob Sanders (knee) and tight end Tom Santi (shoulder) listed as questionable.

Ratliff and Muir returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday.

Dungy said "it's a little easier" for defensive players to play effectively without extensive practice time than offensive players.

"It's tougher on offense, because you miss that timing," Dungy said. "It is much easier to do than with rookies or younger players."

Dungy said he watched the second half Thursday night as the New York Jets (7-3) beat the New England Patriots (6-4) in overtime, 34-31, to move into first place in the AFC East.

"I told the team that you look at that," Dungy said. "Two weeks ago, Buffalo was on top of the division (the AFC East), riding high. Everybody was trying to chase them and then it became New England in the driver's seat and now it's the Jets.

"The thing for us is we have to keep winning these AFC games. We have a tiebreaker advantage on Baltimore. We have one on Pittsburgh. We have one on New England. That could be huge, because you never know you who you're going to be fighting it out with."

The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions and a playoff team the past six seasons, trail Tennessee (9-0) by four games in the South. They are now a game and a half behind the Jets, a game behind Baltimore (6-3) and Pittsburgh (6-3) and a half-game behind New England (6-4).

The Colts, New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are among 10 AFC teams with between four-to-six victories with seven weeks remaining. The others: Buffalo (5-4), Miami (5-4), Denver (5-4), Jacksonville (4-5) and San Diego (4-5).

The Colts are in the middle of a seven-game stretch against AFC teams, having lost to Tennessee on October 27 before beating New England and Pittsburgh. After the Houston game, they will travel to San Diego before playing at Cleveland (3-6) and Cincinnati.

"I think you have to understand how things can change," Dungy said. "You can't take things for granted. You can't say, 'Oh, hey, we had a tough game in Pittsburgh. That was the one we had circled. Now, we're coming home and this should be easier.'

"They're all tough. They all mean one game. You have to enjoy the wins, but you have to get ready for the next week and know that the next week is a little but tougher, no matter who it is."

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