Getting healthy, rather than keeping edge, is Colts' main goal

INDIANAPOLIS -- More than four weeks will pass before Peyton Manning throws a pass in a game that matters.

Let that one swirl around your brain for a minute.

Assuming the Indianapolis Colts do the expected and throttle down from here on out, with no concern about pursuing a perfect season, the question that begs to be answered is this: How are they going to keep their edge until the weekend of Jan. 16-17?

That's when the Colts will play what they hope will be the first of two home playoff games, which is their prize for their 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday. With three games left in the regular season and a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Colts theoretically have a whole lot of "down time" in front of them.

Sure, they actually have to show up and take the field against Jacksonville on Thursday night, the New York Jets on Dec. 27, and the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 3. But nothing, including the possibility of a 16-0 record, is going to change the fact that the Colts' No. 1 mission is to be as healthy as possible for the postseason now that the team has clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

That's no easy chore, considering how banged up they've been during their run to 13-0 and NFL-record 22 consecutive regular-season victories. The Colts' secondary took another hit Sunday, with the loss of rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers to a hamstring injury. It got so bad that in the final minutes of the Denver game, the Colts were unable to even use their dime defense because they couldn't field a sixth healthy defensive back.

Left defensive end Robert Mathis didn't practice all week just so he would be able to get through the game, which he did. Right end Dwight Freeney was hobbling during the final defensive series. Offensive tackle Charlie Johnson pushed his sore body through four quarters. Reserve running back/kick returner Chad Simpson suffered an unspecified injury that could sideline him for awhile.

"You pay a price to win as many games as we've won," Colts president Bill Polian said. "You don't ever give anybody a rest (during a game). You're playing four quarters, 60 minutes the whole time.

"The fact that we've clinched everything at this point couldn't come at a better time. In the third quarter, I said, 'If we have to play next week for everything ... I don't know. We're hurting bad.'"

All the more reason to downplay, if not disregard, the push for perfection.

The Colts' players have pretty much done that. They have a strong grasp of the organization's higher priority. They understand that the only team to go 16-0, the New England Patriots, had nothing to show for it because they wound up losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

The Colts can take plenty of satisfaction in breaking the Pats' record for successive regular-season wins while viewing the next four-plus weeks as a time to heal their minds, as well as their bodies.

"It's a good chance for our guys to get some rest," linebacker Clint Session said. "You're not too mentally stressed out, thinking, 'We've got to win! We've got to win!'"

That's different than "we want to win." The Colts "want" to win those last three regular-season games. They "want" to be perfect. But the only game they've "got" to win won't be played until mid January.

Said linebacker Gary Brackett, "Ultimately, I think the No. 1 thing you want to be in the playoffs is healthy."

That is what Polian and coach Jim Caldwell are thinking about as they discuss the approach to the balance of the regular season, beginning with a road game for which they have only two full days to prepare. Manning isn't hurting, but his offensive line, with other members besides Johnson playing in pain, could use a break. If the unit that protects Manning isn't fully intact, don't figure on seeing much of him.

He and the rest of the healthy starters will practice for the next four weeks. That's what will allow them to maintain some level of sharpness. With Manning struggling badly at times against the Broncos and often looking out of sync with his receivers, it could be argued that the offense could use all of the playing time it could get.

The defense is a different story. If anything should give the Colts hope they have what it takes to make a serious run to their second Super Bowl victory since the 2006 season, it is the performance of their battered defense. Although they allowed Brandon Marshall to catch an NFL-record 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, they showed tremendous grit and resilience in helping Manning and the rest of the offense to overcome three interceptions.

"I'm not sure we've had a better defensive performance than the one we had today in the whole time I've been here," said Polian, who has been the Colts' president since 1998. "This was really something against a very, very good offensive football team. If the defense gives us enough times at bat, we'll be alright at the end."

The Colts have reason to believe that the same will be true about their collective frame of mind. It takes a great deal of mental toughness to sustain the success they've had for such a long period. As Freeney pointed out, "Year in and year out, maybe it's been a little bit of a different team, a different coaching staff, but it doesn't matter. We've been doing a great job."

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay will re-air the Indianapolis Colts' 28-16 win over the Denver  Broncos on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET.

Which isn't the easiest thing to do when you say goodbye to a legendary coach, Tony Dungy, during the offseason and put an unproven assistant, Jim Caldwell, in charge. Or when you say goodbye to Marvin Harrison, one of the greatest receivers in the history of the game. Or when you lose Anthony Gonzalez, who was supposed to pick up most of Harrison's slack, to injury. Or when you entrust a pair of youngsters, Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie, to prop up one of the most explosive passing games in the league.

The Colts have just made it look easy, even after needing fourth-quarter rallies in five consecutive games earlier this season and constantly patching and re-patching an oft-injured defense and offensive line.

"I guarantee that we can stay (mentally) sharp," Session said. "It's just the simple fact that we've got good leaders, starting with (owner) Mr. (Jim) Irsay and Mr. Polian on down. Those guys are not going to let us get out of (being focused). Trust me. As much as we want to get lax, they're not going to let it happen.

"We'll handle business."

Even if the next serious business doesn't take place for four-plus weeks.

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