AFC South: Dominic Rhodes

The Colts will head into the 2011 season with a new running backs coach.

Gene Huey, who’s been with the franchise for 19 years, confirmed the news to the Indianapolis Star.

We don’t know what went on behind the scenes here or if other changes are to come.

While the 63-year old Huey helped develop Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai, the run game has too often not served to supplement Peyton Manning and the pass offense.

Donald Brown, the first-rounder from 2008, has not developed into much of a threat. But I felt the Colts got reasonable work out several backs when they were healthy including Addai, Mike Hart and late addition Dominic Rhodes. Those three all averaged at least 4.3 yards a carry.

The line, more than the backs, has been the issue.

Bill Polian conceded this season that the team erred in its assessment of Rodger Saffold, the tackle who was solid for the Rams. The Colts passed on Saffold in favor of defensive end Jerry Hughes, a virtual non-contributor whose effort on a crucial kick return in the Colts' playoff loss to the Jets should be a major concern.

Huey’s been a loyal part of a culture that’s produced great success for the Colts.

It’s a cliché but correct to say that only time will tell us if his departure is part of broader changes that produce results or if he's some sort of sacrificial scapegoat.
Braylon EdwardsWilliam Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireThe Colts gave up big plays, including this Braylon Edwards catch to set up the winning field goal.
INDIANAPOLIS -- They trudged to the helmet painted on the turf at midfield, offering congratulations to the team that ended their season.

In time, the Colts might come to consider this pre-Super Bowl playoff exit the least painful and most dismissible of the seven they’ve endured during a nine-year run of postseason qualification. On Saturday night, of course, they were too close to it to think or speak that way.

They saw a blown opportunity in their 17-16 loss to the New York Jets in the opening round of the NFL playoffs.

So they’ll carry regret into the offseason, regret not so much about losing to the Jets, but losing to the Jets like that.

By blowing three leads.

The Colts were up 7-0, 10-7 and 16-14.

By watching the Jets convert five of seven third downs in the second half while they failed to convert two third-and-longs in the fourth quarter that left them settling for field goals.

The first, a third-and-7, produced only a 1-yard run by Dominic Rhodes against a heavy defensive-back set.

“They had seven DBs, they had 34, [cornerback Marquice] Cole at defensive end, it was 100 percent pass coverage,” Peyton Manning said. “That’s a lot of DBs. We just thought they’re not going to think we’re going to run it. We’ve got to be able to pick those up.”

The second, a third-and-6, was a Manning sprint out to the right and a throw to Blair White that looked to be a bit short on the right side. White couldn’t corral it as he went to the ground.

By allowing New York to keep the ball with a running-into-the-punter penalty, which resulted in two timeouts burned ahead of schedule and 34 fewer seconds on the clock when the Colts got the ball back.

Taj Smith was flagged despite trying to hold up Jets punter Steve Weatherford once he’d made contact.

“He did a good acting job and I should have played it more conservative, it just was a bad play on my part,” Smith said. “… They just said play it more smart and keep my head up.”

By allowing a 47-yard kickoff return with 53 seconds remaining that positioned the Jets for a quick drive and a field goal as time expired.

[+] EnlargeColts quarterback Peyton Manning
AP Photo/AJ MastThe loss to the Jets was the seventh time in Peyton Manning's 11 trips to the playoffs that the Colts failed to advance beyond their first game.
“It goes from putting a lot of pressure on the offense to putting a lot of pressure on the defense with that field position change,” Manning said.

The Colts aren’t used to watching that unfold with their offense on the sideline. They’re used to Manning and the offense making the other team’s offense squirm on the sideline, enduring a sense of helplessness.

“It’s just bad execution on our part,” left tackle Charlie Johnson said. “It’s bad because … I want to be careful here. You have to give them credit. They played a great game, but at the same time I feel like the better team didn’t win.”

It was the seventh exit in the Colts’ first game of the playoffs in Manning’s 11 trips to the postseason, the sort of context the Colts absolutely hate to have pointed out to them.

“We’ve been to the playoffs nine consecutive years. I don’t think this team has to explain itself to anybody as far as what we are doing in the playoffs,” linebacker Gary Brackett said. “A team’s pinnacle is to get to the playoffs and we’ve done that consistently.”

Said Johnson: “I think it’s bogus. I think there are some teams in the league that would love to have the success we’ve had, regardless of going to Super Bowls or not -- winning so many games over the years, winning 12 or more games however many years in a row, going to the playoffs nine straight years. There are a ton of teams that would take that and be happy with it.”

This exit will ultimately deserve a less harsh review than some others because of how deep the injury-riddled Colts had to dig along the way. They ended the game with Ken Hamlin at free safety. He signed Dec. 22 and was, at the very best, their fifth option at the position this season.

Coming into the game the question for Rex Ryan was, if his team couldn’t get past the Colts now, when might it ever?

Before Manning left the interview podium for the last time in what may be quite a long time, he offered a glimpse into how the 2010 Colts were looking at a potential playoff run, at how things might have been different this time.

“It would have been fun to have kind of gotten on a little run here, there would have been a different feeling,” Manning said. “I thought we would have been the underdog in every game. I thought we were the underdog tonight. We would have been the underdog going to Pittsburgh. That’s certainly a different feeling.

“Usually in the playoffs we’re always kind of usually the favorite to win, expected to win. This would have been a fun little run. This has been a fun little run, these last few weeks, we felt like they’ve all been playoff games. This was the best team we’ve played in some time. We certainly had a chance and just came up short.”

Final Word: Jets-Colts

January, 7, 2011
» Wild-card Final Word: NY Jets-Indy | Baltimore-K.C. | N.O.-Seattle | G.B.-Philadelphia

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Jets-Colts wild-card game:

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellColts wide receiver Pierre Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards in last season's AFC Championship Game against the Jets.
Will the Colts target Drew Coleman? Peyton Manning’s going wherever he finds an open receiver. But the Jets emphasized adding cornerbacks after Pierre Garcon had a huge game against them in the AFC Championship Game. ESPN Stats & Info says that Manning really took off in that game when he started attacking the middle of the field. Surely Reggie Wayne and Garcon will run routes that take them there. But if Darrelle Revis and Cromartie do well on Wayne and Garcon, respectively, we’re going to see how the linebackers can handle Jacob Tamme and how the nickel, Coleman, can handle Blair White. I suspect there will be at least a couple of moments when Colts’ fans grimace and wonder how much of a difference Austin Collie would have made. But Indianapolis has enough to still be effective.

Can the coverage contain Brad Smith? The Colts can’t let a big special teams play be a factor, and Smith can be exceptionally dangerous as a kick returner. Indianapolis should take a touchback every chance it gets. Seriously. There are two significant categories where the Colts and Jets are night and day. This is one of them. The Jets' average drive starts at the 31.5-yard line, the best spot in the league. The Colts start at the 22.7, the worst. It’s fair to cringe every time Indianapolis fields a kick, and that’s not a knock on Dominic Rhodes, who’s been handling the job. There is just nowhere for him to go.

What happens inside the 20? The other night and day contrast between these teams is in red zone production. The Colts don’t have to call on Adam Vinatieri a lot because they are busy scoring touchdowns. When they get close, they get touchdowns 67.9 percent of the time, the best percentage in the league by a good margin. New York doesn’t play great red zone defense. The Jets allow TDs 60.5 percent of the time with Indy’s defense faring better (52.1). On offense, the Jets punch it in only 40 percent of the time. That’s a lot of numbers to get to my point: A lot of Nick Folk on the field isn’t going to win this game, I don’t expect.

Double Coverage: Jets at Colts II

January, 6, 2011
Double IllustrationWho has the advantage in the wild-card game between the Colts and the Jets this Saturday? Our bloggers debate.
In last season's AFC Championship Game, the upstart New York Jets were on their way to scoring their third straight road upset in the playoffs. They'd already knocked off a pair of division champions and led the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.

They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.

Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.

Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets' Mark Sanchez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJets quarterback Mark Sanchez reached 10 wins two games faster than former league MVP Peyton Manning.
TG: Yeah, Manning won 10 games. So did Eli Manning and Josh Freeman. They didn't make the playoffs. The Colts' shadow doesn't have much to do with Peyton Manning slinging the ball all over the yard and racking up yardage. He's still great, but he's not a one-man show. If I were a Colts fan, my concern would be how they needed to close with four straight wins to avoid the embarrassment of being edged out of the playoffs by the Jaguars. The Jets, on the other hand, have shown to be a more complete team. That's how an erratic quarterback like Mark Sanchez can win one more game than Manning did and clinch a playoff berth weeks in advance.

PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.

TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.

PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?

TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.

PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.

TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.

[+] Enlarge Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezColts running back Joseph Addai is averaging 4.3 yards per carry in an injury-plagued season.
PK: A month ago the Colts defense recommitted to playing fast and having fun. It's funny how a team can get away from such simple themes, especially when a return to them produces such fine results. Gary Brackett's been great. Fellow linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have been quite good, even as rookies. Veteran Clint Session could return to take time from Conner. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's willing to send in whichever back is best suited for a situation or a matchup, so we could see any sort of mix of running backs Joe Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown on Saturday night. They are running more than well enough to give the Colts a balance that makes Manning's play-action super effective.

TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.

PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.

TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.

PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.

TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?

PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."

TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?

PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.

The Colts' Wednesday injury report

January, 5, 2011
The Colts' full injury report for Wednesday:
At this point you'd have to guess it's unlikely to see Hayden or Session back after long layoffs.

If Rhodes can't play, Mike Hart is now healthy and ready.

Having both Muir and Johnson to go with Fili Moala in the middle of the defensive line could be big as the Colts try to slow the Jets' run game.
Dominic Rhodes survived a bad fumble Sunday. Other than that, I have trouble finding any negatives about his return to the Indianapolis Colts, who brought him back on Dec. 7 with a $25,000 transfer fee to the UFL where he played for the Florida Tuskers this season.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts running back Dominic Rhodes
AP Photo/Michael ConroyRunning back Dominic Rhodes has been a welcome addition for the Colts.
He has averaged 4.6 yards on 37 carries in three games. More importantly, I think his reappearance in the locker room gave some teammates a boost.

I believe Bill Polian drafts guys who fit his system and the Colts put a pretty solid emphasis on character. Then, knowing there is solid veteran leadership in place starting with Peyton Manning, they figure the personality of the position groups take care of itself, evolving within the team’s building.

Still, Rhodes is a different guy and I believe his presence has a positive effect. Many of his teammates light up a bit when they talk about him.

A sampling:

  • Left tackle Charlie Johnson: “There is just some kind of energy with Dom that he brings every week. Every play he goes all out all the time. It’s fun to see guys like that, he’s just really having fun. The way he’s been in and out of the league, I think it’s made him really appreciate his time here and it’s fun to be around.”
  • Tight end Jacob Tamme: “He’s got a personality that’s unmatched; he brings a fire and a fun-loving attitude. And we’ve been having fun playing the last four weeks. He’s definitely been a fresh face and it’s great to have him back.”
  • Center Jeff Saturday: “Dom is fantastic. That guy has so much fun, he loves to laugh and have a good time, brings just a different attitude. He and Joe Addai and Donald Brown, all complement each other so well. You’ve got different styles of runners and they all get in there and fight and none of them complain about their carries.”

Rhodes enjoyed playing the UFL, because he was still playing. A guy who once could have been a Super Bowl MVP didn’t mind life in the minor leagues at all.

“It’s a kid’s game and that’s how I play it, I love this game,” he said. “This game has meant a lot to me in my life, it’s taken me out of a lot of situations and brought me to a lot of great situations.

In my life I put it very high, I put my teammates very high and I treat them like brothers. If that’s what I bring to the locker room and they like it, I love it.”

Colts regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 1

AP Photo/AJ MastJacob Tamme stepped in for an injured Dallas Clark and caught 67 passes in 10 games.
Biggest surprise: Substitutes called into action because of injuries played very well. Jacob Tamme is not the player Dallas Clark is. But once Clark was done with a wrist injury, Tamme was a consistently productive piece of the offense. He was better than plenty of No. 1 tight ends in the league in terms of his work as a receiver. Justin Tryon was a find, rookie linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner are good players, Aaron Francisco was better than serviceable, Blair White was a contributor, and Dominic Rhodes was a smart late add. When all those guys and a lot more who were slated to be spot starters are in the mix, you’re not supposed to win your division.

Biggest disappointment: The injuries. The Colts finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve. They started 14 different players on offense and 19 on defense. By my count, 14 key players missed at least two games. The guys on that list -- Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Clark, Austin Collie, Brody Eldridge, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Kelvin Hayden, Antonio Johnson, Jacob Lacey, Daniel Muir, Jerraud Powers, Bob Sanders and Clint Session -- sat out 44.2 percent of games they could have played. Sure, every team deals with issues, but these were extreme and few teams could have survived them and made the playoffs.

Biggest need: The offensive line. Team president Bill Polian admitted he underestimated Rodger Saffold in the draft and the St. Louis Rams left tackle could have been a nice piece for Indianapolis. The Colts made do, again, and the group they’ve gone with in recent weeks has shown marked improvement and has been getting very nice push in the run game. Still, Peyton Manning needs more time and a more reliable run game from Day 1. The Colts must invest in upgrading the offensive line through the draft, free agency or both.

Team MVP: Manning. He had a poor stretch during a losing streak. But the Colts needed him to throw, and he set a new league record for pass completions with 450 while helping turn some less-than-ideal targets into viable options.

Decisions loom: The Colts generally hang on to their people, but as they evaluate the injury issue and try to move forward, it may be time to conclude they can’t depend on guys such as Sanders and Gonzalez. You can’t blame a player for getting hurt and you can’t forecast bad luck. But you can get a sense of who may be more likely to get hurt than the average guy. How do you plan when you have little reasonable expectation of getting a long-term contribution from a player? They spent a third-round pick on USC corner Kevin Thomas, who had an injury history. He immediately got hurt and was not available at all his rookie year.
Peyton ManningAP Photo/Darron CummingsThe Colts weren't as dominant as they have been, but are still heading to the playoffs.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts' shoes are scuffed, their clothes are all wrinkled. They’re scruffy and they don’t smell very good.

They are not, as they’ve often been at the start of the playoffs, the pretty playoff entry.

They don’t particularly care.

Their ninth consecutive playoff berth may have been the most difficult of the batch, and has come with stains and scratches. They hope it all helped forge something that will produce a four-game win streak to stack on top of a four-game winning streak.

Their chance to begin the next one comes Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against the New York Jets. The Colts capped the streak to finish the regular season with a 23-20, last-second win over the Tennessee Titans. It was a win the Colts didn’t need to secure a berth -- the Jacksonville Jaguars' loss in Houston assured the Colts were division winners -- but it boosted them to the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

Not bad for a team that was rampaged by injuries, spent a good share of the season struggling to run the ball and was 6-6 on Nov. 5 after an overtime loss to the Cowboys.

“It’s not been pretty,” team president Bill Polian said. “… It’s been tough, but they play 60 minutes and that’s what we’re most proud of, those of us who have been around this team for all these years. This team is not the prettiest, but boy they play 60 minutes every single game.

“We’re not pretty like we used to be. But they are a special group of guys, they work their tails off and they find ways to get it done.”

Polian liked one columnist's assessment that the road was “a new kind of hard.”

In the locker room, guys spoke proudly and with a sense of accomplishment.

The Titans, woeful in seven of their previous eight, played about as well as one could imagine. But they offset Dominic Rhodes’ late fumble with a mishandled snap Kerry Collins couldn’t recover.

[+] EnlargeAdam Vinatieri
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAdam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal clinched the game for the Colts.
Indianapolis moved 37 yards from there to set up Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

Said Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson: “For us to lose as many guys as we did due to injury and to go through a spell in the middle of the year where we just didn’t play very good football and to be 6-6 and have the naysayers say we’re done and the torch has been passed and all of that, the good thing about this team is we didn’t listen to all that.

“We just kept working, we kept grinding, we knew if we took care of our business, we were going to be OK. For it to end like this, for us to win this division is a special deal.”

The Colts showed more of an uncanny ability to survive bad moments and find enough good ones.

Consider Pierre Garcon.

On a third-and-2 play early in the second half, he broke open down the right side between Jason McCourty, who let him go, and Cortland Finnegan, who had to take a sharp angle to cut over and try to get to him. Peyton Manning’s throw was low, but certainly catchable. Garcon booted it.

Indy punted and the Titans drove to a touchdown that tied it at 13.

But on the Colts’ next possession, Manning didn’t hesitate to look to Garcon again, and this time his picture-perfect 30-yard pass settled over McCourty and over Garcon’s shoulder on the right side of the end zone for a score.

The Titans responded again and it was 20-20.

Then possession went back and forth and back and forth. Indianapolis had it five times, Tennessee had it five times and no one really came close to points. The sixth time the Colts got the ball, they got to the 25-yard line, they called their final timeout with 3 seconds left, they had Vinatieri positioned as he likes and they let him finish things off.

The celebration was mild, not wild. It’s the way the Colts think.

Since he took over for Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme's regularly one of the last guys in the locker room. Only the offensive linemen, who spent time in the cold tub, lingered longer Sunday night.

On top of the bag he brought with him to the game, Tamme placed a plastic bag bearing his 84 in black marker. Inside were his AFC South Champion hat and T-shirt, as yet untouched.

“I think a few people wore them, I just now got to it,” he said. “I might put it on my head for the night, you’re talking me into it. Then, once the 24 hours are gone, it’ll go to the closet. We’ll be looking for another one ...

“It is a great honor to be division champs. It’s our first goal at the beginning of the year, to win the division. It’s been a long road to get here, but we got that done. I think we can wear it for a night, happy but not satisfied.”

Quick take: Jets at Colts

January, 2, 2011
Three things to know about next Saturday's New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts wild-card game:

1. The Colts are trending upward in key categories. Over their final three games, they did excellent work stopping the run and providing a more than sufficient run attack to balance out the offense. The Jets will throw rested running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene at Indy after sitting them out of their finale and still crushing the Bills. The Jets had the league’s No. 6 rush offense before that game. The Colts have gotten a boost from running back Dominic Rhodes, who’s now working with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. There is sure to be a big game-planning discussion about how to best deploy the three against the Jets’ rush defense, No. 5 in the NFL after 15 games.

2. We’ve got some seriously contrasting coaches. The Colts' Jim Caldwell is low-key, stoic and is never in danger of saying anything remotely controversial. The Jets' Rex Ryan is a laugh-a-minute, bombastic and will say anything. Neither of them will play Saturday night, but between now and then you can expect to hear a whole lot of comparing and contrasting. Caldwell has a steady quarterback who’s used to beating blitzes in Peyton Manning, and Ryan has a defense that brings extra people as often as anyone. How that sorts out could tell the story of the game.

3. Healthy rushers make for good results. When the Colts have had defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis both healthy for playoff games, they’ve fared very well. Best as I could tell, they both came out of the win over the Titans OK. If the Colts can get a lead and put more of the game on Mark Sanchez than the Jets might like, Indy will be in its ideal defensive position -- one where its two Pro Bowl pass-rushers can use their best moves and incredible quickness to smack the quarterback around, knock him down and hit his arm as he throws. The Jets have a very good defense, but Freeney and Mathis are strip sack artists who can change games in a flash.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 31, 2010
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesArian Foster is the NFL's leading rusher heading into Week 17.
Will Arian Foster win the rushing title? He’s got as 56-yard lead on Jamaal Charles heading into Sunday, and Gary Kubiak has said it’s important for the team to keep Foster on top. But Kubiak hasn't always done well at getting Foster sufficient carries, and the Jaguars are capable of stopping a back. Foster only got 15 carries for 56 yards in the first game against Jacksonville, which the Jaguars won with a Hail Mary.

How do the run games unfold for the Colts and Titans? The Colts have been great the last two weeks at stopping the run and at getting their running backs going. The Titans will surely try to get Chris Johnson the ball, and a lightning fast back against Indianapolis’ speedy defense will be interesting. If the Titans have any pride at the end, they won’t want to give up yards to Joseph Addai, Donald Brown or Dominic Rhodes. In a game pitting pride against a playoff berth, the advantage is with the Colts, the better team with more at stake.

Can the Jaguars score? Trent Edwards is a major question mark, but he couldn’t have drawn a better matchup than the Texans’ pass defense. It will be difficult for Edwards to match David Garrard's red zone work. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the injured starter has 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions inside the 20 this season with the fourth-best passer rating, 113.8, in the NFL. Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew, who is out, have combined for seven of Jacksonville’s eight rushing touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.

Can Indianapolis sort out its linebackers? Clint Session is expected to be active after missing the past eight games. The Colts have settled in with Gary Brackett flanked by rookies Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner, with Tyjuan Hagler mixed into to the nickel. How will they mix in Session against the Titans as he returns from a serious elbow injury? And if the Colts win the AFC South with a win or a Jaguars loss, do they gain a handle on what to do at linebacker in a playoff game?

Is this anyone’s swan song? Three of the four coaches in the division will head into the offseason as question marks, though things should be resolved quickly. Kubiak, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio may all survive, and I don’t believe even a terrible result Sunday will have a big bearing on their futures. But in the day or two to follow, each will have an important meeting with his team's owner.

Video: Clayton's AFC South Huddle

December, 29, 2010

John Clayton thinks Wade Phillips could take over Houston's defense, Jack Del Rio is safe, Jeff Fisher will lose out to Vince Young and the Colts' running game with Dominic Rhodes is providing flashbacks.
» NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 16.

The supporting cast around Indianapolis' defensive stars has been playing better, and it’s spurred the team’s surge.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
AP Photo/Greg TrottThe season may be winding down, but Robert Mathis seemed as fresh as ever against the Raiders.
But in a 31-26 victory at Oakland, one of those stars provided a major spark as the Raiders struggled to find any points on offense.

Robert Mathis forced two incomplete passes by hitting Jason Campbell's arm as he threw. He had 1.5 sacks. He tracked fullback Marcel Reece down on a screen pass and tackled him for no gain at the sideline. He chased Campbell down from behind on a third down to stop a scramble short of a first down. He made a tackle for no gain.

In a division where several high-quality pass-rushers haven’t been able to make it to the end -- Mario Williams (sports hernia), Aaron Kampman (knee) and Dave Ball (concussion) are all on injured reserve -- Mathis looked like he was as fresh as he was on opening day.

His energy was excellent and his ability to not only get to the quarterback, but to disrupt his passes when he gets there is uncanny.

Dominic Rhodes was a solid candidate on a weekend in which the Colts were the AFC South’s lone winner, but Mathis is our High Energy Player of the Week.

Mathis and Indianapolis are now in a win-and-in game against the Titans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

How the run game helped Peyton Manning

December, 27, 2010
The Colts ran well again Sunday in Oakland, and when they run well, Peyton Manning can exploit a defense positioned to stop the run.

According to Trevor Ebaugh of ESPN Stats & Information, Manning entered Sunday with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 116.8 passer rating when there were seven or more defenders in the box.

In Oakland, he continued to take advantage of such situations and he got them because the run game was working -- turning 39 attempts into 191 yards.

Sunday against the Raiders, when the front included seven or more defenders, Manning was 8-for-10 with 9.0 yards per attempt. He threw three touchdowns and no picks and posted a 143.8 passer rating.

With six or fewer defenders in the box -- when the Raiders went with heavy coverage instead of concentrating on the run or the pass rush -- Manning hit on only 8 of 20 passes for 4.5 yards per attempt, both of his interceptions and a 14.4 passer rating.

As a division foe, the Titans are familiar with this trend. Tennessee will be much more willing to suffer at the hands of Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes or Donald Brown than Manning.

Wrap-up: Colts 31, Raiders 26

December, 26, 2010
Thoughts on the Colts’ win the Raiders at Oakland Coliseum.

What it means: The Colts are 9-6 and will win the AFC South next week with a win against the Titans at home or a Jacksonville loss at Houston.

What I liked: I doubted if the Colts would be able to play quality run defense against a physical run team for a second week in a row, but they did. Oakland managed only 80 ground yards. The Colts might now qualify as a better run defense that we thought based on their work earlier in the season. They’re a better run team too -- they’ve rushed for more than 150 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2006, according to CBS.

What I didn’t like: Special teams saw the Raiders' Jacoby Ford return the opening kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown. Also, Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski kicked three field goals of 45-yards or longer and Shane Lechler boomed his punts. That’s a path to holding an opponent without an offensive touchdown for more than 58 minutes and allowing it to stay in the game.

Injury watch: Joseph Addai returned to action after eight games out with a shoulder/neck injury. He took 12 carries 45 yards. But Dominic Rhodes got 17 carries and went 98 yards. Antoine Bethea was hurt late, but returned after just one play.

Brilliant: Peyton Manning's 27-yard naked bootleg got the Colts a big first down near the end that allowed them to run out the clock, but he slid short of a touchdown with a defender closing in on him to be safe.

Unconventional: Jim Caldwell hasn’t been icing kickers on field goals, he’s been icing them on onside kicks. For the second week in a row a late timeout washed away an onside attempt. Last week Tyjuan Hagler recovered the kick after the timeout and returned it for a touchdown. This week the Colts simply recovered the second kick.

What’s next: The Colts host the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium in a game that could determine the AFC South winner and Indianapolis’ playoff fate. The only scenario where the Colts do not win the division is if they lose to the Titans and the Jaguars beat the Texans in Houston.
» NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 15.

The Colts turned all of the pregame thinking about their ground game inside-out in their win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. They shut down the Jaguars' physical run attack. And they churned out over twice as many rushing yards.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
AP Photo/Darron CummingsSecond-year RB Donald Brown had the breakout game against the Jaguars that many fans had been waiting for.
For his part in that, second-year running back Donald Brown is the AFC South High Energy Player of the Week. He carried 14 times for 129 yards and a touchdown, posting his first 100-yard game in the NFL. He had an early 49-yard bolt up the middle that featured a stiff-arm to the outreached hand of safety Sean Considine, and a 43-yard touchdown run up the left side.

Brown has struggled while Joseph Addai and Mike Hart have been missing because of injuries, often looking tentative. But he ran with authority against the Jaguars, who have a pretty physical front, and it’s a development that could pay big dividends going forward. I don’t know if any doubt had crept in for him, but he knows he can do it now.

“I think that would shoot a guy’s confidence through the roof,” said Dominic Rhodes, the recently re-signed veteran running back. “Because when you see that you can do it in this league, that turns a light on in your head.”

The Colts could well be without Addai and Hart again Sunday in Oakland, and the Raiders are a big, physical running team like the Jaguars. If Brown can provide a similar boost for a second game in a row, the Colts will stand a far better chance of winning.