PUSHING ON

The records of the Colts' opponents during the next month don't compare to those of their last five or six opponents, but players and coaches said such things don't matter. The AFC playoff chase is too competitive - and the Colts' status in it too tenuous - to relax.

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Every Week is Imant in a Competitive AFC Playoff Chase, Dungy Says
INDIANAPOLIS – Now is no time to relax.

And considering the Colts' start this season, and considering their status in the AFC playoff chase, quarterback Peyton Manning said that time may not come any time soon.

Yes, the Cleveland Browns – this week's opponent – are 4-7. And overall, the records of the Colts' upcoming opponents don't compare to those of the teams they played in the last month and a half. But Manning and Colts players said this week that doesn't mean they can change their approach.

Now's not the time for that.

And in fact, the opposite is true.

"Those are the games you have to look out for," Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said this week as the Colts (7-4) prepared to play the Browns (4-7) at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, Sunday at 1 p.m.

"Coming off a big win (over San Diego) last week and coming into Cleveland – it's a tough atmosphere and you know you have to continue to work and to continue to prepare because it is a must win. We feel we have to win each game from here on out."

Since double-digit losses at Green Bay and Tennessee, losses that left them below .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade, the Colts have won four consecutive games against a midseason schedule that included three division champions – Pittsburgh (8-3), New England (7-4) and San Diego (4-7) – from a year ago.

The Colts trailed in all four games, becoming the first team since 2003 to win after trailing by 10 points at Pittsburgh and becoming just the third road team to win in San Diego in the last 21 games.

If the circumstances were tough, the games were, too.

Never, in fact, during Head Coach Tony Dungy's tenure have the Colts won in quite the fashion they have done so in recent weeks.

Through Dungy's seven-year tenure, they have been one of the NFL's winningest teams. They have made the playoffs in each of his six seasons, and over the past five seasons they won five consecutive AFC South titles, becoming the first team in NFL history to win at least 12 games in five consecutive seasons.

Many of those AFC South titles came on the strengths of extended regular-season winning streaks, with many of the victories during the streaks coming by large margins. The Colts' current streak is the seventh under Dungy of four or more victories, but never before in Dungy's tenure had they won four consecutive games by seven or fewer points.

The Colts' margins of victory in the last four games: three, four, three and six.

"We're fighting and scratching and clawing," Manning said after the victory over San Diego. "That's kind of the phrase we're using. We're just kind of finding a way and scratching and getting it done. . . . We put ourselves in such a hole to start the season. We really can't afford to give one back. Every week is kind of that do-or-die situation. You don't want to give one back to the field.

"Every game's a dogfight. Every game you kind of expect a close game. These past few games we've won have all been fourth-quarter games. That's all you ask for is an opportunity, and fortunately, we've made the plays, but we're earning them. Hopefully, we keep that going."

The Colts enter the season's final five weeks seeded fifth in the AFC, holding that spot over Baltimore (7-4) and New England (7-4) because of a superior conference record and because of head-to-head victories over each team.

Tennessee (10-1), Pittsburgh (8-3) and the New York Jets (8-3) lead the AFC South, North and East, respectively, with Denver (6-5) leading the West. There are currently nine teams in the AFC with records of 6-5 or better, with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins also at 6-5 in the East.

"We dug a hole," Hayden said. "We don't want to fall back into that hole. If we continue to win, we don't have anything to worry about."

Through the first 11 games of the season, the Colts played six teams currently over .500, and three others – Jacksonville, Green Bay and San Diego – that made the playoffs last season. The combined record of the next four opponents – Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati and Jacksonville is 9-34-1.

"One of the things I try not to do is read too much into the teams that you're playing and what their records are or what the perception of them is," Dungy said. "The schedule comes out and in May and June people say, 'Oh, they should win these, this is going to be a tough stretch,' and you really never know. You don't know, so you can't assume, 'OK, Pittsburgh, that's going to be tough and San Diego is going to be tough but Cleveland isn't.'

"Cleveland is the only team that has beaten the (New York) Giants all year. They've played well in some Monday Night games. They've been up and down a little bit, but if we think they're not going to play well, we're going to be surprised. That's going to be our M.O., to try to get better and try to improve and try to play a better game this week than we played against San Diego. . . .

"This is what separates really good teams that can take care of business week in and week out. That's how we were in '03, '04 and '05. Whatever the challenge is you're able to meet it that week."

Said Hayden, "This is the NFL. Any Sunday you let up, that will be the week that you lose. Our main thing is to look at each opponent the same. It's not about what they do. It's about what we do. If we continue to do what we do, we won't have anything to worry about.

"Every week is a challenge. We want to be on top of that challenge week in and week out."

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