Colts win by any means necessary (and, of course, Manning)

The New Orleans Saints make it look so easy.

The Indianapolis Colts make it look like undergoing a root canal while trying to solve a physics problem.

Different roads to the same place: 11-0.

But is the fact that the Colts are struggling to get it done on a weekly basis any reason to question their ability to keep winning in the postseason?

Not at all.

The Colts certainly have prouder achievements than their NFL-record five consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks. They would love to consistently give the sort of performances that Drew Brees and the Saints gave in embarrassing the New England Patriots, 38-17, Monday night.

Still, the fact it has been the polar opposite doesn't mean the Colts are ill equipped to be every bit as much of a force in the postseason as their partners in perfection.

All that matters now is that the Colts are doing what is necessary to give themselves the best possible chance for success in the playoffs. They've already clinched the AFC South, and with five weeks left in the regular season, they should have little problem locking up the No. 1 seed. Once that happens, they will have created the ideal situation, a two-game homestand to their second Super Bowl since 2006.

For a team that won its four games prior to Sunday's 35-27 triumph over the Houston Texans by a total of 10 points, home-field advantage might very well prove to be the edge necessary for the Colts to reach Super Bowl XLIV. After that, who cares about how they got there?

It also can be argued that the Colts will be mentally stronger than their greatest threat in the playoffs, which, at the moment, looks like the San Diego Chargers, the same team that bounced them from the wild-card round in San Diego last January. In the past two weeks, the Chargers have outscored their opponents, 75-17.

As defensive end Robert Mathis told reporters after the Colts wiped out a 17-point deficit to beat the Texans, "These games build character. After four or five games like this, we're full of character."

In addition to character, the Colts are full of injuries, mostly on defense. Against Houston, they were without end Dwight Freeney and cornerback Kelvin Hayden. Safety Bob Sanders (biceps tendon), linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (biceps), and cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) already have been lost for the season. And this is a unit with only one starter, Freeney, who was chosen higher than the 92nd overall pick of the draft.

Another factor in the Colts' inability to dominate teams is that their running game ranks next-to-last in the league. Houston-born Joseph Addai routinely has big rushing performances against the Texans, but on Sunday he ran for only 69 yards against what, before the game, was the NFL's 22nd-ranked run defense.

But here are the reasons the Colts can overcome their shortcomings: Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and the rest of the league's No. 1 passing attack.

Here's one more: Tremendous focus.

First-year coach Jim Caldwell has done a superb job of keeping his players from thinking about anything except the next game. When addressing the team, he never brings up where the Colts are in the standings. On the chartered flight back home from Houston, it was announced that Jacksonville had lost to San Francisco, therefore giving Indianapolis the division crown. There was cheering, but it didn't last long. Everyone understood that winning the AFC South was merely the first step toward a much larger goal.

Five successive weeks of late-game rallies notwithstanding, the Colts also don't view themselves as a club that constantly lives on the edge, even if it's the way many of us see them. They know they're more than capable of doing things the easy way, as they did in blowout victories earlier this season against Arizona (31-10), Seattle (34-17), Tennessee (31-9), and St. Louis (42-6).

"I really don't think because something happened in one game, means it's going to happen in another," Manning told reporters. "Every week and every game really kind of has its own identity."

Ultimately, the Colts' identity is that of a team that wins, regardless of how it happens.

Observation points

» The Chargers are cruising along with a six-game winning streak while their offense piles up points. Yet they aren't asking Philip Rivers to carry an inordinate amount of the load on his passing arm. Rivers isn't being a prolific passer; he's being an efficient one. In San Diego's 43-14 victory over Kansas City, he threw for 317 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. His 28 pass attempts were the second-fewest among the seven 300-yard passers in Week 12 (Drew Brees had the fewest with 23 for 371 yards and five scores). In five of their last six games, the Chargers have had more runs than passes. Another stat that supports the notion they're better off without Rivers doing too much is that, since 2006, they're 8-1 when he throws for 145 yards (his total in the Week 11 victory against Denver) or less.

» As the Carolina Panthers' season plunges deeper into the abyss, there appears to be a daunting challenge which the current (or possibly new) brain trust will have to deal with going forward. This team doesn't have anyone being groomed to eventually take over for its top receiver, Steve Smith, who is nearing the end of his ninth season. Certainly, that's something that could be addressed in the draft, although Carolina won't have a first-round pick in the upcoming draft after trading it to the 49ers last year. This also is a team whose priority clearly has to be to find a new quarterback. It is unlikely the Panthers will be able to sufficiently address both spots in the offseason, meaning their passing game could encounter more problems in 2010.

» Remember all of those stories about Brett Favre being an intolerable prima donna while with the New York Jets last season? How he had to have his own separate dressing quarters away from the rest of the players? How he pretty much functioned as a team within the team? There is no talk of that sort of thing happening since he joined the Minnesota Vikings in August. "He's around us every day," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "He doesn't hide from us. He hasn't got any private room like the guys with the Jets were saying. And we tell Brett, 'Don't worry. Just go out there and have fun, do what you do, because we've got your back.' Everybody on this team has got each other's back."

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» For all of the euphoria surrounding Favre's off-the-charts season and the Vikings' 10-1 record, one does not sense any real community groundswell to get the team a new stadium to replace the dilapidated Metrodome. And that is something that simply must happen for a franchise whose ownership puts no limits on spending to field a top-level team yet is at the very bottom of the league in revenue. A new stadium would go a long way toward offsetting those costs, but as a long-time Minneapolis resident said the morning after the Vikings pounded the Chicago Bears, 36-10, "The people around here are very stubborn. It doesn't matter what their politics are. They just won't support the idea of spending (taxpayer money) on a sports team, regardless of the great history the Vikings have had here. They'll spend it on other facilities, but they will draw the line when it comes to (replacing the Metrodome) … even if it means losing the Vikings to Los Angeles."

» This is how Tony Romo addressed the Dallas Cowboys' perpetual collapses in December and January in the aftermath of their Thanksgiving Day win against Oakland: "I know that it might be whatever it is to certain people, but it's all about improving each time you're out there. If you do that consistently, December will take care of itself; January will take care of itself." Sorry, Tony, but December and January will not take care of themselves. You, more than anyone on your team, have to take care of them, or this season will be dismissed as yet another flop. And Cowboys fans are likely to be less forgiving than ever … not that they're forgiving now, of course.

» How good should the Seahawks feel about beating St. Louis, 27-17, for their 10th consecutive victory against the Rams? Ten straight wins against any opponent in the NFL is certainly worth noting, but celebrating? Not so much. All it means is that the Seahawks have extended their dominance over one of the most pathetic clubs in the league -- a team that has won all of six games since 2007 and hasn't had a winning record since 2003.

They've got answers …

» The New York Jets, because their coach, Rex Ryan, came up with a color-coded wrist band that clearly seemed to help rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez in his redemption performance against the Carolina Panthers. The band had green, yellow and red on it, and presumably functioned similarly to a traffic signal, telling Sanchez when it was OK to be aggressive, when he should be cautious, and when he absolutely shouldn't do anything foolish. Let's see how well it works Thursday night in Toronto against the Bills, who intercepted him five times in a 16-13 loss on Oct. 18 at the Meadowlands.

» The Baltimore Ravens, because after Mark Clayton had only two receptions in his previous three games, he wound up with seven catches for a season-high 129 yards to help his team to an overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That is the sort of performance the Ravens desperately need from him if they are to secure a wild-card playoff spot.

» The Green Bay Packers because, for all of the issues they've had on their offensive line, they've found a reliable substitute for multiple spots up front in rookie T.J. Lang. The fourth-round draft pick from Eastern Michigan has been solid at left guard, and has also shown the ability to handle both tackle positions.

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They've got questions …

» The New York Giants, because Eli Manning's persistent foot problems and a beat-up defense that lacks physicality and shows no sign of improvement figure to have this team free falling right out of the playoff picture.

» The Miami Dolphins, because as a team that was supposed to be a playoff contender, there was no excuse for losing to a Buffalo Bills squad that was in its second game with an interim coach, is searching for new people to run its football operation, and had been blown out in Miami earlier this season, even before undergoing numerous roster shuffling because of injuries. Someone wrote the following on a grease board in the visitors' dressing room at Ralph Wilson Stadium: "We never know who we are until we are called to rise." Apparently, the Dolphins missed the call, because they sank to a level that hardly resembled anything they did on the way to winning the AFC East with an 11-5 finish in 2008.

» The New England Patriots, because cornerbacks Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite and the rest of their secondary can't provide any coverage behind a front seven that doesn't generate any pressure.

Four intriguing games for Week 13

» Tennessee at Indianapolis: The Colts have the AFC South locked up, but they still want to keep their foot on the pedal to secure home-field advantage. It won't be easy against the Titans. Red-hot Vince Young and Chris Johnson should be able to shred the Colts' struggling defense. Of course, the Titans' defense isn't likely to have a much easier time of stopping Peyton Manning and Co. than they did in their 22-point loss at Tennessee on Oct. 11.

» New England at Miami: All of a sudden, this game becomes a little bit more significant than it looked before the Patriots' second loss in three games. The Dolphins might very well be no more competitive vs. the Pats than they were vs. the Bills in Week 12. Tom Brady and his teammates might very well be able to rebound as they did against the Jets in Week 11, one week after a crushing loss at Indianapolis. However, New England's defense hardly looks as if it can hold up against any opponent. The Dolphins offense will never be mistaken for the one the Patriots saw Monday night, but when receivers are left uncovered and there is an inability to stop the run, don't be surprised if Chad Henne is able to make it competitive.

» Dallas at N.Y. Giants: If you go by what the Giants showed at Denver on Thanksgiving night, this doesn't shape up as much of a game. Eli Manning's foot problems continue to look as if they're hindering his play, even if he doesn't want to admit as much. And the Giants defense looks slow and incapable of making plays. Still, these are the Cowboys. Before their Turkey Day beat-down vs. Oakland, they were in a serious offensive slump. It's possible this will turn out to be a typically close game between fierce division rivals, as was the case with the Giants' 33-31 victory at Dallas on Sept. 20.

» Minnesota at Arizona: This is a prime-time matchup between a couple of division leaders, although the Vikings seem to have already proven they are the better club. If the Cardinals don't have Kurt Warner at quarterback, this could be another lopsided victory for Minnesota. Either way, the Vikings should further demonstrate that, although they don't have a perfect record, they aren't all that far behind the Saints … if they're behind them at all. The regular-season schedule doesn't offer an opportunity for that to be determined. Guess we'll find out in the playoffs.

Top five teams

1. New Orleans: The rest of the league has been placed on notice: This is a nonstop flight to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV.
2. Indianapolis: Yes, the Colts also are 11-0, but it doesn't seem quite as dominant as the one they've got going in the Big Easy.
3. Minnesota: The Vikings have the look of a complete team that is going to have plenty to say about who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
4. San Diego: With the woeful Browns up next, the Chargers are about to extend their winning streak to seven.
5. New England: They're probably good enough to win a bad AFC East, but they're simply not good enough to compete with the league's elite.

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Top five offensive players

1. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: He made taking advantage of the Patriots' grossly overmatched secondary look like a passing drill vs. air on Monday Night Football. The sign in the Superdome said it best: "Who Dat? Drew Dat."
2. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota: Forty shmorty. He's playing the best football of his career.
3. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee: He is running away from the competition (read: Adrian Peterson) in the debate over who is the NFL's best running back.
4. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego: His effective and efficient passing has been integral to the Chargers' surge.
5. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore: He generated 155 yards rushing and receiving, and made one of the biggest plays in the Ravens' OT victory vs. Pittsburgh with a 44-yard reception on fourth down to help set up the FG that forced the extra period.

Top five defensive players

1. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota: His two sacks and interception keyed a dominant defensive effort that gave the Bears no chance of competing with the Vikings.
2. Darrelle Revis, CB, N.Y. Jets: He had two interceptions, returning one for a 67-yard TD on the opening drive of the Jets' win vs. Carolina, and held Steve Smith to one catch for five yards.
3. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia: Overcoming a sprained neck that nearly kept him out of action, he twice intercepted Jason Campbell in a close win vs. Washington. It was Samuel's second two-INT game of the season.
4. Clint Session, LB, Indianapolis: Although he is part of a banged-up defense, that didn't stop him from making a difference-making play with the interception he returned 27 yards for a TD in the middle of the fourth quarter to help the Colts beat Houston. He also was credited with nine tackles.
5. Paul Kruger, LB, Baltimore: The rookie reserve described it as a simple matter of being "at the right place at the right time," but his interception and 26-yard return to set up the winning field goal in OT vs. Pittsburgh showed remarkable smarts and poise for someone playing in only his fourth NFL game.

Top five coaches

1. Sean Payton, New Orleans: On a prime-time stage, he had the offensive scheme and Gregg Williams had the defensive scheme that outsmarted Bill Belichick at every turn.
2. Jeff Fisher, Tennessee: Even if starting Vince Young at QB was the owner's call and not his, Fisher continues to deserve credit for keeping the Titans on their remarkable roll that could very well take them from 0-6 to the postseason.
3. Mike Singletary, San Francisco: When his players said the offense needed to become more aggressive throwing the ball, he listened. As a result, the 49ers overcame a crushing Week 11 loss to Green Bay to remain very much a threat to the NFC West-leading Cardinals.
4. Norv Turner, San Diego: He has the Chargers running like a finely tuned machine that has surged to elite status.
5. Perry Fewell, Buffalo: In only two weeks as interim coach, he has brought a clear sense of energy and urgency that didn't exist under Dick Jauron.

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