INDIANAPOLIS – Goal No. 1 was set nearly 150 days ago in an Anderson University lecture hall.
The easiest way to find your name on the invite list for the NFL playoffs is win your division.
With two weeks left in the 2014 regular season, the Colts have secured that invite thanks to running the table against the AFC South in winning back-to-back divisional crowns.
Compared to their opponent this weekend, the Colts have little to play for thanks to already punching their ticket to January.
Chuck Pagano has made it clear though that improvements need to be made in Weeks 16 and 17 to prepare the Colts for a road that will in all likelihood have to lead through New England/Denver to reach Super Bowl XLIX.
Offensively, the hope is to get back to the starts this team had through the first six games of the season.
Lately, the Colts have had to rely on their defense to keep them in games early on.
A combination of protecting the football in first quarters would certainly be a step in the right direction for the Colts to ignite things a bit earlier in contests.
Defensively, the last month has seen some very sound efforts out of a healthy unit for this time of year.
The level of competition for the defense takes a major step up this weekend with a Dallas offense arguably the most balanced attack in the NFL.
"I know what we've got, I like what we've got, but we have to show more of what we've got," safety Mike Adams says.
"We've got to show more of that consistency, more of that stopping the run on a consistent basis, not just two games, then we miss one game, on a consistent basis."
In the run game department, the challenge this week is immense.
DeMarco Murray has defined the term "workhorse back" in a 2014 NFL world where teams rarely commit to one player to carry the load Murray has this season.
He's on pace for the second most touches in NFL history and has more than 400 rushing yards than the second place runner in 2014.
The Colts run game has limited Pro Bowlers Alfred Morris and Arian Foster the last three weeks and now the unit sees if it can add Murray to that list.
"I think we're probably as far along as we've been in three years, better than we've been," Pagano says of his run defense. "We've had our moments that we didn't play well and we gave up way too many yards. But I think we've been more consistent week-in and week-out especially the last couple weeks.
"We need to keep that going. Play disciplined football, 11 guys all on the same page, communicating, doing their job and then tackling well and all those type of things. I like where we're at, just got to keep heading in the same direction."
On the surface it might seem like the Colts have little to play for the next two weeks but don't tell that to D'Qwell Jackson.
Here's a guy that knows, for the first time in his nine-year NFL career, meaningful games remain after the regular season.
"For teams that hang their hats on getting to the playoffs and obviously making a run in the playoffs, it's an important game on every level, and we understand that," Jackson says of Sunday's matchup between division leaders.
"We're going to come ready to play. That's what you grind all year for is to be able to play in these type of games, and be able to come out victorious in these type of games. That sense of urgency hasn't left, and it's another great opportunity to go to Dallas and play a great football team."
INTERESTING MATCHUPSCowboys running back DeMarco Murray versus the Colts front seven:Over the past four years, Dallas has built itself for an elite rushing attack with three first round picks on offensive linemen. Murray is the beneficiary running behind that unit and he's produced like no other back has in 2014, accounting for 38 percent of Dallas' offense.Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant versus the Colts secondary: Bryant has been the recipient of some favorable matchups thanks to the extra attention shifted towards "stopping" Murray. A one-on-one matchup for Bryant is something no defensive coordinator wants to see. However, the Colts will probably have a few of those looks throughout the game on Sunday. It will be interesting to see whether the Cowboys try and put Bryant more towards Greg Toler's side on Sunday and stay away from Vontae Davis.Quick Facts
-The Colts lead the league with 77 plays of at least 20 yards this season and 18 touchdowns of at least 20 yards.
-With a win on Sunday, Chuck Pagano would become the second head coach in NFL history with 11 wins in each of his first three seasons.
-Colts tight end Dwayne Allen is ranked second in the NFL in touchdown percentage with eight scores in 29 receptions.
-Dallas leads the league in third-down conversions at 48 percent.
-Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is responsible for an NFL-best 38 percent of his team's offensive production.
-Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns (13).NOTABLE QUOTESColts Head Coach Chuck Pagano(on playing in "Jerry's World"):
-"It's probably one of the biggest things that I'm trying to educate our guys on through other people that have been there, played there and try to get them ready and prepared. Not only to play the game, but to play in that stadium. I think what happens is you can go there and get enamored with all the things that I've heard and researched about the stadium itself, the jumbotron that covers the entire field and everything else that goes along with that stadium. Thought about making it a two-day trip, getting out there a day early and go there. If we were far enough away, I'd do it and go there on a Saturday and get all that out of the way. Have a walkthrough there and let them look at everything, play the game on Sunday and focus on the game and the game only. Because I think you probably could get distracted is what I heard if you don't stay focused. There's a lot going on I heard."Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano(on the challenge of the Dallas' skill guys):
-"They're ninth in the league in total offense. Best offensive line that we'll have faced to date. They've got three number one picks on that offensive line, a left tackle as good as they get in the league. Three-headed monster in the runner Murray, the receiver Bryant and Jason Witten. Great, great players. Between those three guys, they account for 3,800 yards of their total offense and 23 of their 43 touchdowns or something like that. I know Dez has 13 touchdowns receiving, DeMarco's rushed for 11 and I think Witten's got four touchdowns. Terrance Williams on the other side is no slouch. Athletic guy, six touchdowns himself, so they've got a bunch of great players and the quarterback's playing at a really high level. Managing the offense, he's taking care of the football, 28 touchdowns, only eight interceptions. He's completing 70 percent of his passes right now, so he's playing at a high level. We've got our hands full."
Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck(on if there's an advantage to playing another 10-win team this late in the season):
-"That's a good question. I think it's fun to play teams that are fighting for something too. I think there's a lot of magnitude to this game, they're a good football team. I think any time you can play a good football team, that's a plus, especially on the road. We understand the work's cut out for us. It's a good Cowboys team and excited for the challenge on the road."
Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett(on why DeMarco Murray has had so much success this year):
-"Well I think we've had success running the football as a team this year and it starts with the guys up front. I think they've done an outstanding job. I think our tight ends, our receivers and our fullback, they've all blocked very, very well. But DeMarco is certainly a huge part of this rushing attack. Obviously he's the bell cow, he's the lead dog, he's the guy we want to give the football to and he's responded very, very well to that. He's just a good running back. He's got a good feel for finding holes and finding the softness of the defense. He's got great vision, he can cut. He's quick, he's fast, he's explosive. He can make people miss. He finishes runs and he loves to play football. So you put all those things together, I think it gives you a chance to be successful. He's certainly had a great year for us."
Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett(on the play of Dez Bryant):
-"In the case of the offense, certainly we love getting the ball to Dez Bryant. He's been a playmaker for us. We have a healthy respect for their defense. They've got a lot of good players and Vontae Davis is certainly one of them. He's had an outstanding year. He's just an excellent cover guy. He does all the jobs that a corner needs to do in this league very, very well. The biggest thing we have to do is go be who we are, have the balanced attack that we've had all year long and hopefully Dez gets some opportunities and he can take advantage of them."Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo(on if he has an explanation for an undefeated record on the road and a 3-4 mark at home):
-"I don't have a good answer for you. We've just played well on the road. We've done a great job of just focusing on doing our job. Being that we've lost games at home, you can point to a bunch of different reasons. We've played against good teams. I was out for a game in one of them, but I don't know if those are anything that adds up to a thing. I don't really have a good answer for you there. We just need to play better this weekend and play our best football game so we can give ourselves a chance."