Colts Enter Final Month of Season in Control of Wild-Card Destiny
INDIANAPOLIS – Throughout November, they scratched, clawed and fought. When it was over, the Colts were at the front of the AFC Wild-Card chase.
Now, comes December.
And Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy this week said this much is clear:
November doesn't matter anymore.
Neither do the records of the Colts' opponents.
Nor does the Colts' winning streak.
What Dungy, now in his seventh season with the Colts, said matters is that despite all the Colts accomplished in the last five weeks, and despite their first 5-0 month in more than three decades, nothing actually is decided. Because now, comes December.
And for the Colts, there is no more imant month.
"We have to continue to improve," Dungy said 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.
"That's probably our goal. We improved in November and we have to continue to improve in December."
The Colts, after losing back-to-back road games by double-digits to Green Bay and Tennessee in late October, indeed improved in November, and in the process pulled off a playoff position-enhancing winning streak unlike any in Dungy's six previous seasons with the team.
The Colts won five consecutive games, their seventh streak of five victories or more in Dungy's seven seasons, but the first in which all victories came by six points or less.
"The great teams, the championship teams, know how to win those close games," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "I think we're doing a good job of that right now. We have to keep it going. Everybody's stepping up at the right time – offense, defense and special teams.
"We have to keep it going."
Said Dungy, "It has been gratifying. It's harder to do when you're 3-4. If you're 5-2, to put together a streak like that, everyone kind of expects it. But when you're 3-4 . . . we didn't set out to say, 'Boy, we have to go 5-0 in November,' but it was, 'Hey, we've got some tough games coming up. We have to improve every week. We have to win.' That's what the guys set out to do."
The streak has been as nerve-wracking as it has been unusual.
And it has been thrilling at times, too, with the Colts four times rallying from second-half deficits to win – at home in an 18-15 victory over New England, at Pittsburgh in a 24-20 victory, at home in a 33-27 victory over the Houston Texans and at Cleveland in a 10-6 victory this past Sunday.
The other victory in the streak?
A 23-20 victory over San Diego in San Diego, where the Chargers had won 18 of their past 20 games. After losing a 10-point second-half lead, the Colts won that game on a 51-yard field by kicker Adam Vinatieri on the game's final play.
The Colts, as they have done all season, played through injuries during the streak, negotiating the final three games of November without 2007 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who missed the games with a knee injury.
They also were without center Jeff Saturday (calf) against Cleveland. And thus far this season, at least eight starters have missed games this season, a total that doesn't include quarterback Peyton Manning – who missed the preseason after undergoing knee surgery – or middle linebacker Gary Brackett (lower leg) and defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson (hamstring), each of whom Dungy said is expected to miss Sunday's game.
"We're not playing at full strength," Manning said following the victory over Cleveland. "Hopefully, we can get our guys back in December, but until we do, you kind of anticipate these close games. You to find a way to make the play in the fourth quarter. . . .
"That's what we anticipate from here on out. I don't care who we're playing, where we're playing. They're going to be four-quarter games. Hopefully, we can make the four or five plays that decide the games. That's what the games come down to."
However accomplished, the Colts' unbeaten November accomplished its goals. The Colts, since 2003, have won five consecutive AFC South titles, but after a 31-21 loss to Tennessee in late October, Indianapolis was 3-4, trailing the 7-0 Titans by four games.
"We've always talked about the AFC South and what we had to do there," Dungy said. "We had to kind of take a break from that and say, 'OK, here's where we are. For us to get in the playoffs, we have to look at all of these other teams and their record. We have to somehow jump over them. The only way to do that is to win the AFC games and win those battles head to head.'
"It takes maybe a tighter focus, because every week you're in a crucial game. That's how it has been now for the last five weeks and that's how it will be for the next four."
With four games remaining, the Colts still trail the Titans by three games, and with a victory in any of their final four games, the Titans will clinch their first AFC South title since 2002.
The four division winners from each conference make the playoffs along with two wild-card teams – the teams with the two best records among non-division winners. The Colts enter the season's final four weeks seeded fifth in the AFC, holding the 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.
"We have to assume Baltimore and New England and Miami are going to win all of their games," Dungy said. "So right now, it looks like it will take 11 (victories) to be sure, so we've just got to continue to play and continue to take them one at a time. We know if we do get to our 11, we'll be in. We don't have to win and hope, so it is set up as well as you can have it after a 3-4 start."
After a November in which every opponent was either leading its division or still in playoff contention, the Colts will open December with three games against teams with a combined record of 5-30-1, a stretch that includes games against Cincinnati, Detroit (0-12) and Jacksonville (4-8).
They will close the season with a home game against Tennessee, a game that will be for the AFC South title only if the Titans lose their next three games.
"We don't know what's going to happen," Dungy said. "They have a couple of tough games left, but we at least have put ourselves in a position where we don't have to look for help. That was our goal – to get back in the playoff race. We could start putting teams behind us one by one that we played and we did it. . . .
"I think we have learned about looking at records when San Diego and Cleveland don't have great records, but they are very, very talented teams with Pro Bowl players. We had to extend everything we had to win those games, so I don't think we'll fall into the trap of looking at records and expecting easy games, but our practice has to focus on improving the things we aren't doing as well – fundamentally, our run defense, some 3rd-and-1s that could come back to haunt us if we don't convert them, getting back to the ball security that has been a trademark for us – those kinds of things we'll be able to focus on. If we do them, we'll feel like we can win."