MAINTAINING FOCUS

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has concerns entering the season's final month. But Manning said among those concerns is not a thought that the Colts will overlook an opponent such as the Cincinnati Bengals based on record.

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Opponents' Record Far from Primary Issue, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – With November now December, and with the final month of the NFL season at hand, Peyton Manning has plenty of concerns.

There's playing better offensively than the Colts did a week ago.

There's the defense of the Colts' upcoming opponent.

There's the ongoing playoff push.

There is, however, one thing Manning – an 11-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowl selection – said doesn't much concern him, and that's that anyone around the five-time defending AFC South champions will somehow lack focus in the coming weeks, particularly because of an opponent's record.

"We have enough guys who have been around long enough to know that every team in the NFL has great players," Manning said Wednesday as the Colts (8-4) prepared to play the Cincinnati Bengals (1-10-1) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

"Especially at this point in the season, you take records out of the equation. You're playing to try to improve every single week, and hopefully, by improving, that results in you winning the game. That's the idea, that you have to try to get better this week and we're playing a tough team. . . .

"It helps to be more of a veteran player. I could see how in college that could creep up a little bit. In the NFL, you're talking about some of the greatest athletes in the world."

The Colts, who ended October with back-to-back, double-digit road losses at Green Bay and Tennessee to slip under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade, have won five consecutive games to enter December as the fifth seed in the AFC.

The Colts' maintained that positioning this past Sunday with a 10-6, come-from-behind victory at Cleveland (4-8), a team similar to the Bengals, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said.

"They have talented skill position players, they have a defense that tests you and they don't have a great record," Dungy said. "What we have to do is look at the tape and the players they have and not look so much at the record as we prepare.

"I think especially after last week our guys will do that and we'll be ready to play well."

Said Manning, "We did start out sort of rocky, and were kind of up and down and inconsistent. We were sitting there at 3-4, and Coach Dungy kept talking about getting started on a streak, needing to get on a streak.

"We've done that so far, but we really need to keep it going."

The Colts, a playoff team the past six seasons, hold the fifth spot over the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) because of a superior conference record and because of a 31-3 victory over Baltimore in early October.

Tennessee (11-1), Pittsburgh (9-3) and the New York Jets (8-4) lead the AFC South, North and East, respectively, with Denver (7-5) leading the West. There are currently eight teams in the AFC with records of 7-5 or better, with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins also at 7-5 in the East.

"If you look at the AFC, which he always does – he points to who else is around you – every game feels like it's 'win and advance,' or 'lose and be eliminated,' " Manning said. "We've put ourselves in a decent position. We just can't afford to give one back or get behind.

"We have played that way, these past few weeks, with a real sense of urgency, so there's no question Monday and Tuesday are a lot better after wins and these past five weeks have been better, but you enjoy it enough where you want to keep it going."

Each of the five victories in the streak have come by six points or less with Indianapolis rallying from deficits in each game. The Colts trailed in the second half in each game of the streak except San Diego. In that game, they squandered a 10-point second half lead before kicker Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal on the game's final play.

It was suggested to Manning that winning such games might help the Colts later in the season.

"It's hard to really get 'down the road' when you're taking it one game at a time,'' Manning said. "When you have so many new players playing, and you have your defensive captain (middle linebacker Gary Brackett) injured, all you kind of think about is the present: this practice, the next practice and obviously, this upcoming game.

"I'm sure it has some merit for this game, knowing the past five games we've had have all been close games and we've won. That's what you expect again this week, for it to be a close game and hope you have a chance in the fourth quarter to make a play and help win the game.

"That's what we've been used to these past few weeks. That's what we expect this week and the rest of this month: close games. Hopefully, we'll have a chance to win it at the end."

The Colts beat Cleveland without scoring an offensive touchdown, the first time that had happened in a regular season game since 2003. After ranking in the Top 10 in the NFL in total offense each of the past nine seasons, Indianapolis is ranked 21st this season, and on Sunday, the Colts produced 215 total yards.

"You never take winning for granted, but certainly you want to score more than three points," Manning said. "Offensively, it's just a matter of finding a way to get into the end zone. Everybody has to do their job at the right time. All 11 guys have to be on the same page. Hopefully, we can do that this week.

"We're always trying to improve. That's what we talk about every single week, is getting better every single week. That will be the goal again this week."

Which is something Manning said won't be easy.

Manning said whatever the Bengals' record, they have played well defensively at times, ranking 24th in the NFL and playing particularly well in an overtime loss to the New York Giants early in the season and in a recent 13-13 tie at home against Philadelphia.

"Their defense is a salty bunch," Manning said. "They took the Giants to overtime and probably could have won that game. They had tied Philadelphia and beat Jacksonville (23-21)."

The Colts will play host to Cincinnati (1-10-1) and Detroit (0-12) the next two weeks before a game at Jacksonville (4-7) on Thursday, December 15. They will finish the season with a home game against South-leading Tennessee (11-1).

"It's one game at a time, and that's what our approach is, especially with all of our injuries and a lot of new guys playing," Manning said. "That's all we can do, is try to help some of these young guys come along and everybody has to kind of raise their level of play. . . .

"That's what Coach Dungy always says, 'It's the first game of the fourth quarter and you hope to be playing some of your best football around this time. Hopefully, we can start the fourth quarter off on the right foot.

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