Colts Focused on Holding AFC's No. 5 Seed in Season's Final Three Weeks
INDIANAPOLIS – The sales pitch is as simple as it is critical.
And although it is without complexity, Head Coach Tony Dungy said it will be among his major messages as the Colts enter the final three games of the regular season.
Fifth is better than sixth.
The Colts, winners of their last six games, currently hold the No. 5 position in the AFC postseason standings, and although they cannot improve that spot, Dungy said the focus now must be on holding the position through the final three weeks.
The Colts' hold on the spot is solid, Dungy, said. Now, it's up to them to keep it that way.
"Right now, we're sitting in good position in terms of getting that fifth slot," Dungy said Monday afternoon, a day after the Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 35-3, at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
"That's why we want to continue to win, so we can stay there. Fifth is better than sixth. That's what we're going to sell. If we keep winning, we'll be fifth. That's our incentive right now."
The Colts (9-4), the AFC South champions from 2003-2007, were eliminated from division title contention Sunday when the Tennessee Titans (12-1) beat the Cleveland Browns, 28-9.
The Titans, who last won the South in 2002 – the first season of the division's existence – have clinched by ensuring they will have a superior record in common games, which would be the third tiebreaker scenario if the teams finished tied at 12-4.
"We just have to congratulate them," Dungy said. "You win 12 out of 13 . . . they deserve it. We had some shots. We lost a couple of games that are haunting us right now. But they did a good job. They won the division and they can start looking at the playoffs now where everybody else is sort of playing their way in.
"They've done a good job and they'll represent the division well. We want to be there with them and see if we can get two teams in."
The Colts, who slipped under .500 after back-to-back losses in late October, hold the No. 5 seed over Baltimore (9-4) because of a superior conference record to the Ravens and a head-to-head victory at home against the Ravens in early October.
The Colts and Baltimore lead the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, who are tied atop the AFC East at 8-5. One of those teams likely will win the division. Denver (8-5) leads the AFC West by three games over San Diego and can clinch the division with a victory Sunday, and Pittsburgh (10-3) leads the North by two games.
Four division champions advance to the playoffs from each conference along with the non-division winners with the best record.
The Colts will play host to the Detroit (0-13) Sunday, and will visit Jacksonville (4-9) the following Thursday night before finishing the season at home against Tennessee.
"You know that you're there, and you've put yourself in position where if you keep winning, you're going to be in," Dungy said. "We have at least two games we have to win. If we win the next two, we'll be in and that's the way we're looking at it."
The game against Detroit will be the second in as many weeks against a team that has been eliminated from playoff contention. Against the Bengals, the Colts took a 14-3 halftime lead, and pulled away steadily with a fierce second-half pass rush and two touchdown passes by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
The victory came in the wake of a week of questions about the matter of focusing adequately on an opponent that was out of playoff contention.
"I was proud of our team for really dialing in and getting focused and taking care of our business," Dungy said. "That was kind of the thought for the day, was do our job, and we did it. We got that first win in December, which is huge. We have that same type of challenge (against Detroit). We have to follow that up with a better performance against a team that doesn't have a great record, but has some talented players."
"The focus for us will be getting better, doing our job and trying to improve, and keep ourselves in the playoff picture right where we are. I thought we played well. We were a little bit sluggish to start the game. We knew we'd have some adjustments to make."
Dungy said the sluggish start was attributed in part to the Bengals playing a different style of defense than the Colts anticipated. Rather than blitz extensively as they had in recent weeks, the Bengals played more three-defensive lineman sets, which enabled tight end Gijon Robinson – playing because Indianapolis anticipated using him to pass protect – to catch a team-high – and personal season-high – six passes for 69 yards.
"We had to adjust to that," Dungy said. "I thought our guys did. They kept their poise, and once we got going and got the lead, that really played into our hands."
The Colts on Sunday limited the Bengals to 252 total yards, and held their second consecutive opponent without a touchdown. Indianapolis now ranks 13th in the NFL in total defense, and after forcing four turnovers and committing one Sunday, they are tied for fourth in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-8.
And while focus on an opponent with a disappointing record again likely will be a weeklong theme by observefs, Dungy said the Colts' have a clear and simple objective, one that he expects to keep focus from being an issue.
"We want to stay ahead of Baltimore," Dungy said. "We can't afford a loss. Whether it was Detroit or whoever it is, this is a must-win game for us."