At 6-5, Colts Enter Sunday's Game Against Dallas With Fate in Their Hands
INDIANAPOLIS – What the Colts need is clear.
Dwight Freeney, the Colts' five-time Pro Bowl defensive end, said while what the Colts need entering December is what they have needed for some time, that doesn't make it any less imant.
He said what's most important is it's still attainable.
What the Colts need, Freeney said, is consistency.
"I think the biggest thing, really, is to get guys focus on the goal at hand," Freeney said as the Colts (6-5) prepared to play the Dallas Cowboys (3-8) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 4:20 p.m.
"We don't need to worry about our record. We have to understand that everything is still in our hands if we do what we're supposed to be. We have to go out and perform.
"That's the key – keeping tunnel-visioned."
The Colts, who have won six of the past seven AFC South titles, have lost back-to-back games and three of the last four, but remain in first place in the AFC South. They are in a two-way tie with Jacksonville (6-5), which won three consecutive games before a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday.
The Jaguars on Sunday will visit Tennessee (5-6), which enters the weekend in third-place, ahead of Houston (5-7).
"Most times at 6-5, yes, you're behind the eight-ball in the division," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who has thrown for 3,334 yards and 22 touchdowns with 11 interceptions this season.
"Other teams in the division have had some of the same things happen to them as us, as far as getting on a win streak, losing a few in a row, been somewhat up-and-down. The team that finds some consistency down here in the stretch, I think, is the team that is probably going to win the division.
"We certainly hope that is us."
The Colts, who have made an NFL-best eight consecutive post-season appearances, have spent much of the last decade playing throughout the season with leads in the division. They started 2003 5-0, then started 13-0 in 2005, 9-0 in 2006, 7-0 in 2007 and 14-0 last season.
But while they enter December in relatively unusual circumstance, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said the reality is that the situation facing the Colts is still "a great opportunity."
"It is an opportunity for us to certainly control our own destiny, and obviously that starts this weekend," Caldwell said. "It is a very, very important ballgame for us, like they all are. The next one up is extremely important, and we have a very, very talented team that we have to face.
"So we have to play well and take advantage of the opportunity."
The Colts visit Tennessee four days after playing the Cowboys, and will follow that with another AFC South game – at home against Jacksonville. They then visit Oakland before playing host to Tennessee in the regular-season finale, but Manning said there's little use thinking beyond Dallas.
"We have to establish that consistency, and the only way to do that is to take that first step," Manning said. "I do think just because you say, 'Well, we'll play better next week,' that doesn't really do it. You have to go out there and practice better in order to play better.
"Hopefully, we can translate good work on the practice field to the playing field."
The Colts not only enter December in a tight division battle, they do so with a roster that continues to deal with the season-long issue of multiple injuries. The team has placed several key players on injured reserve, a list that includes tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez and safety Melvin Bullitt.
They also have played without various other starters, and in a loss to San Diego this past Sunday they were without running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart, linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session, wide receiver Austin Collie, tight end Brody Eldridge, cornerback Justin Tryon and safety Bob Sanders.
Caldwell said Tryon could be available Sunday as a kickoff returner, but Sanders remains out with a biceps injury, and no timetable has been set for the return of Collie and Addai.
Caldwell said in such circumstance a simple approach is often preferable.
"I think it is always something you have to address," Caldwell said. "We talk often about it doesn't have to be anything extraordinary. All you have to do are the ordinary things. Do your job and really don't worry about anyone else's. That is really the task. Oftentimes you do get into that mode where you think you have to do something extra to get us over the hump, but obviously the reality is that sometimes, less is more."
Said Manning, "I think that's probably a pretty good general rule of thumb. I don't feel that's necessarily been a problem for anybody here. I think we just need to execute better. That's your simple solution. I don't think that's been a cause of poor execution by any means."
And Freeney said while the Colts five times in the last seven seasons won the AFC South by leading the division from start to finish, the team is not unfamiliar with overcoming adversity.
In 2002, the Colts made the playoffs by winning in the final game of the regular season after a 4-4 start, and in 2004, they trailed in the AFC South in late October before an eight-game winning streak clinched their second consecutive AFC South title.
They were 3-4 entering November in 2008 before a nine-game season-ending winning streak clinched a seventh consecutive playoff appearance, and in 2006, they lost three December road games, with the defense being widely criticized during the stretch.
The 2006 team won four post-season games and Super Bowl XLI.
"The Super Bowl year, they wrote us off that year, too," Freeney said. "The defense was this and that. The team couldn't do this and that and the other. I get it. You (the media) see certain things, and you have to come up with your own, but we can't really worry about much outside the locker room.
"That's why we've won a lot of games around here, because we haven't (paid attention to outsiders). We're had to stay together and focus on the next (task) at hand. That's what we're going to do."