KEY TIME, TOUGH TASK

The Colts are .500 at the season's midway point and in contention for a playoff spot in a tightly-contested AFC. Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning each made it clear this week that .500 won't be enough in the second half of the season.

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Colts Need a Streak in the Second Half of the Season, Dungy Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The approach worked a week ago.

Now, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said, the task is simple.

Take the same approach and make it work again.

The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions, reached the season's midway point in positive, dramatic fashion this past week, rallying for a victory over a longtime rival. Their victory over the New England Patriots left them in a pack of teams entering the final half of the season in playoff contention.

But Manning and Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy each made this much clear this week:

What the Colts did in the first half of the season?

It won't be enough in the coming weeks.

"We're truly taking them one game at a time at this point," Manning said Wednesday afternoon as the Colts (4-4) prepared to play the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., Sunday at 4:15 p.m.

"We finished the halfway season 4-4: .500 football. That's not the kind of football we want to be playing. We'd like to be a much better team in this second half. We have a tough challenge, starting with Pittsburgh and here on out the rest of the way.

"We are kind of in a one-game-at-a-time mode. That was the approach last week. It worked for us, and we'll see if we can do it again this week."

The Colts, who lost back-to-back games before an 18-15 home victory over the AFC East-leading Patriots, are in the middle of a several-week stretch against AFC contenders, a stretch that included this past Sunday's game and includes the next four:

• At Pittsburgh (6-2) Sunday.

• Home against Houston (3-5), November 16.

• At San Diego (3-5), November 23.

• At Cleveland (3-5), November 30.

The Colts, New England (5-3), Houston, San Diego and Cleveland are among 11 AFC teams with three-to-five victories. The others are the New York Jets (5-3), Buffalo Bills (5-3), Miami Dolphins (4-4), Baltimore Ravens (5-3), Cleveland Browns (3-5), Denver Broncos (4-4), and the tight nature of the AFC makes the coming weeks critical, Dungy said.

"We play so many of these other teams that we're going to be fighting with," Dungy said. "We still have a chance and that's why every week is imant when you're in a stretch like this, with all teams that are really in the hunt. . . .

"You have to win three out of four or you have to win four straight. Somewhere along the line you have to do that."

Manning said turning last week's victory into the season's second winning streak won't be easy. Not only must the Colts play the team with the AFC's second-best record, they must play a team with the NFL's top-ranked defense and do so in one of the NFL's toughest venues.

The Steelers have the NFL's best record at home – 212-82-1 – since 1970, and are 27-7 there the last five seasons. Their history at home against the Colts is more dominant, having beaten the franchise in 10 of 11 meetings regular-season meetings in Pittsburgh.

The Colts' lone victory in Pittsburgh came in September of 1968, and they lost 28-10 in Pittsburgh in 2002, Dungy's first season as head coach.

"I haven't thought about that a whole lot this week as much as I have trying to get ready for this defense," Manning said. "They're good at home. They have a great tradition, great history and they are playing well. I know their fans will be fired up to have the team playing at home.

"It will be a great challenge for us."

The Steelers will be the latest of a recent run against some of the NFL's top defenses for the Colts in recent weeks.

The Colts already this season have played the Ravens (ranked no. 2 in the NFL in total defense) and Titans (No. 7), having scored 31 points in a victory over Baltimore and 21 in a loss to Tennessee. The Steelers – who ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense a year – are ranked No. 1 again this season, leading the NFL in sacks with 32, a pace that would set a Steelers franchise record.

"When the schedule came out, you knew which defenses were going to be tough," Manning said. "Pittsburgh hasn't disappointed our expectations. They're always stout against the run and always cause problems in the passing game, whether it's by confusion or playmaking.

"There's a reason they're the best defense in the league."

The reason, Manning said, is a combination of elite-level players and a complex, 3-4 scheme coordinated by longtime NFL assistant Dick LeBeau.

"You don't see anybody running wide open," Manning said. "You don't see a busted assignment. They truly make you execute and do your job. It's a credit to them. . . .

"They have good players. To me, that's the key to their defense. They have good players and they have an excellent front. That's given people problems up to date, just being able to block their defensive line and being able to block their linebackers. They blitz quite a bit as well."

Against the Washington Redskins this past Monday Night, the Steelers tied a season-high with seven sacks and held Clinton Portis – the NFL's leading rusher this season – to 51 yards. The Steelers have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season, and the Baltimore Ravens are the only team to rush for more than 100 yards against Pittsburgh, rushing for 103 in a late September overtime loss.

Pro Bowl Linebacker James Harrison, who had a sack and a half against Washington, leads the Steelers with 10 sacks, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley – who had two sacks against the Redskins – has 9.5.

"Pittsburgh has a unique style of defense because of the players they have," said Manning, who has completed 183 of 294 passes this season for 2,008 yards and 12 touchdowns with nine interceptions for a passer rating of 83.3. "They do things nobody else can do because of the players they have. They're very well-coached and that's why it's going to be tough, because of the players they have.

"It's a great challenge – I know that. Playing on the road will make it even harder. We need to do some things to make it easier by staying out of third-and-longs, protecting the ball and not giving them short field position and just trying to convert some third downs when we have the opportunity.

"If we could have a little mix of run game, drop-back pass, play-action, that sure would help as well."

While the Patriots and Ravens also play 3-4 schemes, Dungy said there is a difference in how Pittsburgh employs the defense.

"It's a little different than New England – same type of thing in that they try to create confusion and bring a lot of different people," Dungy said. "With this one, there's just a lot of heat from their outside backers and guys you have to block. They're very active and they're very fast.

"It's a pretty good combination that they've got going – fast and physical."

Following the Colts' 31-3 victory over the Ravens earlier this season, Manning spoke of the mental challenge of playing a Baltimore defense that blitzed often and offered various looks at the line of scrimmage. Manning said he expects similar difficulty Sunday, with some added elements.

"It's the same philosophy," Manning said. "It's a great mental challenge and it will be even tougher, because we're playing up there – on the road, with the crowd noise and all of those things. It will be a great challenge for us on offense. We need to try to do some of the things we did the other night.

"We need to protect the ball and when we get down into the red zone, we need to try to score touchdowns and be decent on third downs."

Said Dungy, "Baltimore gave you a lot of things where you said, 'Hey, if we can figure this out, we've got a chance to get some big plays. But these guys haven't given up many."

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