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Battle-tested Colts not finished just yet in the AFC

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It seems fitting that even the team president needs the help of a cane to get around these days.

Bill Polian, back with his club after missing two games while recovering from hip-replacement surgery, is a hobbling example of what the Indianapolis Colts have encountered for the better part of the season.

Down, but never out. Broken, but not destroyed.

"I missed two games, but they didn't have to put me on IR," Polian joked after Sunday's 34-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Several Colts players haven't been as fortunate, which was why the Jaguars showed up at Lucas Oil Stadium fully expecting to put this beat-up bunch out of its misery. There were many pundits around the NFL -- and, if they were being totally honest, more than a few Colts loyalists -- who shared that perspective. It was, they thought, time for Peyton Manning and the rest of the franchise that made winning a dozen games each year look routine and whose flag had seemingly been cemented atop the AFC South to finally step aside and let someone else taste a little divisional glory.

The fact the Colts refused to go down, denying Jacksonville a chance to yank the crown from their collective head on their home turf, spoke volumes about their character. Coach Jim Caldwell and his players read the script that everyone else had prepared for them, and then threw it away.

"We define ourselves," linebacker Gary Brackett said. "We don't let anyone outside our locker room define us."

By "we," Brackett is actually referring to a fairly small core of veterans that, like him, set the rules that less experienced players (which comprises most of the team) follow. The others include Manning, center Jeff Saturday, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, offensive tackle Ryan Diem, and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Maybe the Colts are 8-6 and need to win their final two games to secure another division title, or face the likelihood of playoff elimination. Maybe they don't resemble the club that played in the Super Bowl last February, with Manning suffering through the worst slump of his career and with one of his most reliable targets, tight end Dallas Clark, among those lost to season-ending injuries.

That doesn't mean they have to play as if they no longer belong with the Patriots or the Jets or the Steelers or the Ravens. And that goes for everyone wearing a uniform on game day.

"(Members of the veteran core) all accept responsibility and they all keep their head and they all work hard as hell to get ready," Polian said. "The young guys, many of whom have never played much in the National Football League at all, have those guys to look up to and rely upon and see how they do it in terms of preparation and in terms of practice and in terms of getting themselves ready to play. And they do a hell of a job. It takes a special effort to defeat them."

Said Brackett, "If you're out there and you're healthy, you've got to play your best game and guys have been doing it. Obviously, some of the rookies, they don't know what to expect, but they can ask questions and guys who are there, who have been through this type of thing, can kind of tell them what to do. We say, 'Just play calm, play poised, but play with a lot of energy and be effective out there.'"

In 25 years as a president or general manager with three teams (including Buffalo and Carolina), Polian has never seen anything quite like what the Colts have experienced this season. Through 14 games, the Colts have been forced to add 12 players who were on no NFL club's opening-day roster.

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On multiple occasions, Polian, who is not given to surrender even in the bleakest of circumstances, admitted to thinking the Colts' playoff hopes were dead.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had 11 starters out," he said, laughing at his gallows humor. "We don't often know who's going to be out there, but they fight for 60 minutes and you've got to be awfully proud of them. This is a group that's easy to love."

It's even easier with the Colts in a familiar spot: First place. But the road only figures to get much tougher with games at Oakland and home against Tennessee. On Sunday, Manning's new go-to man, receiver Austin Collie -- in his first game since suffering from concussion-like symptoms in Week 11 -- caught two touchdown passes. Then, he suffered another concussion. The Colts were 2-4 while Collie was limited to a half of action during that stretch because of the concussion he suffered against Philadelphia in Week 9.

At 8-6, Jacksonville is only the third team with a winning record that the Colts have beaten this season. The Chiefs and Giants, both 9-5, are the others. The combined record of the teams that have dealt the Colts their six losses is 48-36.

To Brackett, those numbers are meaningless. All he and the rest of the Colts' veteran core know is that they still have a shot to win their division. They still have a chance to do something special.

"We're still in playoff mode, and that's the mentality we have," Brackett said. "I'll tell you this: I'll bet no one wants to play the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs."

They've got answers

» The New York Jets, because with the pressure turned up about as high as it has been on quarterback Mark Sanchez and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, they came through with a winning effort in the cold and snow at Heinz Field. Sanchez is supposed to go all Southern California in those conditions and be about as effective as an ice sculpture. Instead, he demonstrated mostly good poise against one of the NFL's top defenses.

» The Baltimore Ravens, because they went back to the run-oriented offensive style that has served them so well in the past to knock off the red-hot New Orleans Saints. Ray Rice, who had become something of a forgotten man, rushed for 153 yards (only his second 100-yard game of the season) and added 80 yards on five receptions. The Ravens wisely got away from trying to make their scheme all about flooding the air with passes simply because they have so many talented pass-catchers. Their defense also stepped up to the challenge of not squandering another fourth-quarter lead.

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because a week after suffering a humiliating shutout loss at San Diego, they were able to put together the sort of performance that had turned so many skeptics into believers on their way to the top of the AFC West. The St. Louis Rams might not exactly be a high-quality opponent, but it's impressive that Matt Cassel played well only 11 days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy and that the Chiefs were able to run better and play better on defense.

They've got questions

» The Pittsburgh Steelers, because their defense, while still good, isn't as dominant without the best defensive player in the game, injured safety Troy Polamalu. They also missed injured tight end Heath Miller. The Steelers should get well fast against Carolina on Thursday night, but the fact remains they have won only seven of their 10 games since Ben Roethlisberger's return from a suspension and that the only victory they've had against a top-level team came at Baltimore.

» The New York Giants, because there is a very good chance that their crushing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles could leave them reeling to the point where they aren't able to recover and salvage a playoff spot. Not only did they give their best defensive punch to Michael Vick and still get victimized by his masterful playmaking, they allowed DeSean Jackson to win the game on one of the most memorable punt returns in NFL history. A stunned Tom Coughlin was only saying what any coach in his position would when he described feeling "about as empty as you get to feel in this business." But he has to get over it -- quickly.

» The New Orleans Saints, because when the Baltimore Ravens' offense decided to get physical with their defense, they didn't have an answer. That has to be particularly humbling for a unit that prides itself on delivering big hits.

Observation points

» Vick and the Eagles did much more than win a game. They put the rest of the NFC and, for that matter, the NFL, on notice. Their message: "There pretty much isn't anything a defense can do to stop us."

No team has come up with a better antidote for Vick than the Giants. And for a good deal of Sunday's game, it was working, just as it did when the teams previously met this season. The Giants used a variety of tactics, including safety blitzes, to generate heavy pressure that clearly caused Vick to become frustrated. Then, all of a sudden, whatever magic defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had concocted stopped working. In the fourth quarter, knowing something had to be done to off-set the struggles of the Eagles' injury-riddled defense, Vick simply decided it was time to start playing a game that no one else on the field had the skills to play. He tore through the Giants on runs of 35, 33, and 22 yards, while also making plays with his arm.

Jackson's miraculous punt return ultimately won the game, but Vick provided would-be opposing defensive coordinators in the postseason with another reason for insomnia. How do you stop what he does?

Here's a clue: You don't.

» For a while Sunday night, I was beginning to wonder if Aaron Rodgers might have been feeling a little like Don Majkowski as he watched Matt Flynn do a decent Brett Favre impersonation in his first start with the Green Bay Packers. Favre beat Cincinnati in his inaugural Packer outing, and the injured Majkowski never got his job back. Flynn fell short against New England, but until his inexperience got the better of him in the final minute, he was putting on an unforgettable show. That made you wonder what was really going on behind that grin Rodgers, who wasn't cleared to play because of a concussion, flashed from the sidelines for much of the game.

» Let the Tim Tebow era begin. The Denver Broncos might have lost to Oakland, but they had to feel good with the results of their first extended look at Tebow, who started in place of injured Kyle Orton. As usual, the rookie's most impressive work came on his feet; he rushed for 78 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown. But Tebow also did a decent job as a passer. His second touchdown throw of the season looked like a certain interception before it found the hands of the receiver.

» The Dolphins need to blow up their offense and start over. But with Bill Parcells gone, who would oversee the demolition process? Owner Stephen Ross insists he isn't going to turn to his long-time friend, former Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson, to do the job, but multiple people around the league continue to think there is a decent chance of that happening.

» The Eagles did it in far more dramatic fashion, but Tom Brady and the Patriots also sent a fairly convincing nothing-you-can-do-will-beat-us message to the rest of the league as well. The Patriots were hardly at their best, especially on offense, yet managed to figure out how to do just enough to overcome the stern challenge from a Packer defense that sacked Brady three times and generally made him uncomfortable in the pocket.

» I'm sold on Ryan Fitzpatrick remaining the Bills' starting quarterback and the team addressing defense and other areas with its early picks in next year's draft. Would I feel differently about that if the Bills were in position to select Stanford's Andrew Luck? Probably.

But if the Bills were in that position, it means they would have more losses. The reason they don't is mainly attributable to Fitzpatrick's combination of intelligence, instincts, talented arm, and abundant athleticism. He has taken an offense loaded with misfit receivers and lacking a playmaking tight end -- while working behind a shuffled and reshuffled offensive line -- and given the Bills more pop than they've had in years.

Coach Chan Gailey deserves his share of credit as well. Remember, he was the Bills' fallback -- and we're talking waaay back -- choice for coach after bigger names such as Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher turned them down. Given how things have unfolded in Washington, you think the Bills might be a little relieved that they never had the chance to open their vault to Shanahan and shower him with a salary many times greater than they ended up paying Gailey?

» Although Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has voiced strong support for coach Gary Kubiak, it is hard to believe that a change won't be made after the season.

The Texans hit rock-bottom with a lifeless effort against Tennessee. That is, when they weren't fighting each other in the middle of the field during the game. The general consensus is that players have flat-out quit on Kubiak, a sure sign that they no longer are listening to whatever message he is trying to deliver and aren't the least bit interested in doing their part to help save a job that should be in jeopardy.

McNair has shown remarkable patience with Kubiak, whom he likes personally -- so much that he might very well be allowing their personal friendship to cloud his ability to make the right business decision and bring in a new coach. If McNair doesn't pull the trigger, he risks creating a serious disconnect with a fan base that he and his front office have worked extremely hard to engage. Hope and promise, two key words of the sales pitch upon which the Texans have long relied on to put fannies in the seats of Reliant Stadium, are ringing hollow in the midst of a three-game losing streak and a season when the club is destined to finish no better than a game below .500.

Four intriguing games for Week 16

N.Y. Jets at Chicago: The Jets, and especially Sanchez, received a much-needed confidence boost by beating Pittsburgh. Now they need to show that it wasn't merely a one-time thing. Rex Ryan's Jets tend to thrive on criticism, and they certainly had plenty entering the matchup with Pittsburgh. After doing a nice job against the Steelers' vaunted defense, Sanchez should feel he is capable of doing the same against the Bears' strong D. A vulnerability has been exposed in what has mostly been a solid Jet defense is pass coverage in the middle of the field. The Bears figure to have the ability to take advantage of that with Jay Cutler throwing short and intermediate passes, while also getting some help from his running game.

Indianapolis at Oakland: Do the Colts have enough left in the tank to make it to the finish line? Losing Collie is a serious blow because it leaves Manning without another true go-to target besides Reggie Wayne. The Raiders figure to continue to do what has been working best for them offensively -- pound the ball with Darren McFadden, who in his last three games has rushed for 339 yards and averaged more than 6 yards per carry. The Colts' defense did rise to the challenge of containing Maurice Jones-Drew, but the Jaguars also helped the Indianapolis cause by getting away from the run in the second half.

N.Y. Giants at Green Bay: It would be totally understandable if the Giants were unable to rebound from their devastating loss to the Eagles. That game left them with questions that will likely haunt the entire organization for many years to come. However, Coughlin's job could very well depend on his ability to, first, shake the Philadelphia game himself and, second, get his players to do so. The fact is, the Giants seemed to do an excellent job of overcoming their nightmarish odyssey in Week 14 that began with a trip to Minneapolis for a Sunday game that turned into a Monday night contest in Detroit via Kansas City. Like the Giants, the Packers are fighting for their playoff lives and might have Rodgers back.

New Orleans at Atlanta: For the Falcons, this is about closing the sale on a prize they richly deserve: Home-field advantage through the postseason. Quietly and efficiently, they have put together the NFL's longest winning streak (eight games). And there would be a little poetic justice if they were able to capture the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs at the expense of the defending Super Bowl champs. The Saints have to be concerned about how poorly their defense handled Baltimore's running game. But the good news for them is that, despite facing the prospect of being on the road during the playoffs, they are seeing Reggie Bush make what looks like steady progress in his comeback from a broken fibula.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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