WHAT THEY WANTED TO HEAR

Not that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had much time to worry about it on a short week, but when he learned Monday that he and other healthy Colts players will play as normal against Jacksonville on Thursday night, he welcomed the news.

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Manning Glad Colts Will Play Starters Thursday Against Jacksonville

INDIANAPOLIS – Peyton Manning liked the decision.

Not that the Colts quarterback had time to worry too, too much about just how the team would approach a late-season, short-week game against a division rival this week, but when he learned Monday that he and other healthy Colts players will play as normal . . .

Well, he may not have had much time to think about it.

But he did welcome the news.

"That's kind of what I think most players wanted to hear, I would think – the veteran players," Manning said Tuesday as the AFC South Champion Colts (13-0) prepared to play the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6) at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium Thursday at 8:20 p.m.

"That's kind of any competitive player's nature, is to go play."

The Colts, who are 13-0 for the second time in five seasons, on Sunday not only set NFL records with their 22nd consecutive regular-season victory and their 114th victory this decade, they also clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

That means the Colts have clinched all there is to clinch in the regular season, and raised questions about just how many starters will play – and for how long – in the team's remaining three regular-season games – at Jacksonville, at home against the New York Jets and at Buffalo.

Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell, who has taken the approach throughout his first season of focusing on the week at hand, said while he hadn't made plans for the final two games that the Colts will approach Thursday's game as they had their first 13 games.

That, Caldwell said Monday, means healthy players will play, something he reiterated and clarified Tuesday when he met with the media.

"We're just going to treat it like we have these previous 13 games played," Caldwell said. "If they're not able to go, if doctors don't release them to play, they won't play. That's the only reason why they won't go."

Caldwell also added, "I'm only dealing with this week."

That's the approach Manning said on Tuesday he appreciates, and one that has worked for the Colts throughout the season.

"The plan is business as usual," Manning said. "That's kind of what we've done all week. This team truly has bought into (Colts Head) Coach (Jim) Caldwell's approach about one week at a time – truly one opponent at a time. That has served us well to this point, and that's really the same approach this week."

The Colts, who also started 13-0 in 2005, remain one of two unbeaten teams this season along with New Orleans. They are the sixth and seventh teams to start a season 13-0, and never have two teams done it the same season.

The Colts will play host to an AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 16-17.

"One thing we haven't really talked about is anything besides trying to get better this week," Manning said. "There are some things we need to improve on, some things we did really well against Denver Sunday. It's an opunity to try to improve on those things and keep doing some of the things we're doing well. That's all we're talking about this week, and I assume that will be the same plan next week. . . .

"It's really kind of been that one week at a time. I know it's kind of a boring cliché, but it's what Coach Caldwell kind of laid out for us when he first got here. I think the team has bought into it so far, and it has served us pretty well."

Manning said the biggest change for the Colts this week hasn't been approach or having clinched home-field, but preparing on a short week to play Jacksonville. The Colts are 4-0 in in-season Thursday games since 2001, having beaten Kansas City in 2001, Detroit in 2004, Atlanta in 2007 and Jacksonville last season.

"Besides the fact that we're playing in a couple of days, everything has been pretty normal so far," Manning said. "It's normal preparation – normal like you'd play any other game. No different than any other game. No different than Week 2 or Week 7. That's kind of how we're preparing for it. That's how I'm preparing for it.

"It's a mental grind, getting ready in a short period of time, but that's what it is."

Because the Colts returned to practice Tuesday rather than Wednesday, Manning said he didn't speak much to Caldwell about how the Colts planned to approach the week.

"We had the game on Sunday, and I think a lot of decisions kind of got made pretty quickly," he said. "We were kind of encouraged to use the short rest period we had to get ready to play. We've got another opportunity to get better, and, hopefully, we can do that."

And Manning, like center Jeff Saturday, said playing a division opponent will be as much motivation as anything else Thursday. The Colts are 37-10 all-time against the AFC South, including 5-0 this season. The Colts twice before have gone unbeaten divisional play – 2005 and 1968.

The Colts are 13-4 against Jacksonville all-time, 11-4 since the 2002 inception of the AFC South and they swept Jacksonville in 2002, 2005 and 2007.

"It's a division opponent," Manning said. "They're familiar with us. We're familiar with them. They're competitive guys. They're always tough down there, in Jacksonville. We know that.

"They're right in the middle of things in the playoff chase. You'll get a little bit of everything from them, potentially. We have to be prepared for somewhat the unexpected. The main thing is for us to do our jobs well."

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