INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts will take a 7-4 record and a four-game winning streak into this week’s road game at Cleveland.
After registering a last-second 23-20 victory at San Diego Sunday night, the Colts are now the leading contender for an AFC wild card bid. Indianapolis has the tiebreakers in their favor with wins already secured over Baltimore (31-3) and New England (18-15), who have identical won-loss marks.
“You want to be playing your best football at this time of year. I think we are. We’ve played a lot of AFC [playoff] contenders. We came up a little bit short at Tennessee [losing 31-21], but we’ve beaten everybody else,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said after the Chargers’ game.
“We’ve given ourselves now the tiebreakers over everybody who is close to us now, which is great. San Diego is a good football team. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they win their division and we see them again somewhere down the line.”
After getting the season off to a 3-4 record, Indianapolis appears to have found its footing and could be primed to make a strong run the rest of the way.
“When you look at who’ve we played, we played Tennessee, New England, Pittsburgh. Tough teams. We’ve played two tough places on the road. We’re doing the things that you have to do,” Dungy said.
“We’re hanging in there and getting ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter. I like where we are. We’ve improved every week. We just have to keep battling and keep going and get ready to go until December.”
But Cleveland (4-7) comes first this week.
“We’ll enjoy [the San Diego win]. But going to Cleveland [this week], we’ve put ourselves in such a hole to start the season we really just can’t afford to give one back. Every week is kind of that do-or-die situation and you don’t want to give one back to the field,” quarterback Peyton Manning said.
“So every game is a dog fight. Every game you kind of expect a close game. Going to Cleveland is a tough place to play. It’s always a challenge coming back from a west coast trip. Hopefully we can bounce back and play well [this] week.”
Manning admits that the Colts have been able to play well, especially on third down and in the fourth quarter of recent games. On the season, Indianapolis has converted 9-of-13 fourth-down situations. The Colts converted 10-of-17 third-down situations against the Chargers Sunday night.
“In the games we’ve lost, we haven’t made the plays in the fourth quarter. Against Jacksonville, they made the plays. Against Tennessee, they made the plays in the fourth quarter and we didn’t,” he said.
“These last few games we’ve won, they’ve all been fourth quarter games. And that’s all you ask for is an opportunity. And, fortunately, we’ve made the plays. But we’re earning them. And hopefully we can keep that going.”
• Keeping the pressure on — Dungy understands that the chances of overtaking AFC South leader Tennessee before the end of the regular season probably aren’t very good.
After all, the Titans have a 10-1 mark and maintain a three-game lead over Indianapolis. Still, the Indianapolis coach would still like the opportunity to make things interesting for their divisional rival.
“I always said, after we left Tennessee that we couldn’t win the division. And we probably still won’t. But what we’ve got to do is make [the Titans] continue to play,” he said Monday. “We’ve got to keep winning so they have to keep winning. And we’ll see what happens.”
In order to keep the pressure on Tennessee, though, the Colts can’t afford to take anybody lightly. With a four-game slate coming up against the Browns, Cincinnati (1-9-1), Detroit (0-11) and Jacksonville (4-7), Dungy wants to make sure that his team doesn’t look past anybody.
“One thing I try not to do is read too much into the team’s that you’re playing and what they’re records are, what the perception of them is. The schedule comes out and in May and June people say, ‘Oh, they should win these [games]. This is going to be a tough stretch.’ And you really never know,” he said.
“You don’t know. So you can’t assume that well, ‘Pittsburgh’s going to be tough. And San Diego is going to be tough. But Cleveland isn’t.’ Cleveland’s the only team that has beaten the [New York] Giants all year. They’ve played well in some Monday night games. They’ve been up and down a little bit. But certainly if we think they’re not going to play well, we’re going to be surprised. So that’s going to be our M.O. of trying to get better and trying to improve and trying to play a better game this week than we played against San Diego.”
• Injury list —Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday suffered a strained calf muscle in the first quarter of Sunday night’s game at San Diego. He did not return.
It’s not yet known how much playing time he might miss. Saturday incurred a similar type of injury in 2004 and was sidelined for a couple of weeks. An update on his availability for the Cleveland game won’t be known until later this week.
“Jeff strained a calf muscle. He did the same thing in Detroit [on] Thanksgiving Day a few years back. He missed a couple of weeks with that. We’re hoping it’s not going to be as long. We knew right away that he wasn’t going to return [Sunday] night. But as far as how it goes, we really don’t know yet. We’ll just kind have to wait and see,” Dungy said.
Strong safety Bob Sanders continues to nurse a sore right knee. Sanders has experienced swelling in the knee, which has forced him to miss the last two games.
Due to a high right ankle sprain and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee earlier this season, he has played in just four of the Colts’ 11 games.
“It’s kind of what we’ve been fighting for the last couple of years,” Dungy said. “As I said [last week], we’re just going to have to find that happy medium of practice time where he gets sharp and gets to feeling comfortable without practicing so much that his knee keeps swelling. Hopefully we’ll find that happy medium this week.
“He’s had trouble with it for awhile. I shouldn’t say trouble. But just swelling from over use. And we’ll see if we can cut that down.”
No other injuries were reported after the Chargers’ game. The Colts players had Monday and today off but the team will issue an updated injury report after Wednesday’s practice.
• Lilja decision expected — A decision is expected sometime today on offensive guard Ryan Lilja and whether he will be added to the Colts’ active roster.
Lilja is currently on the team’s physically unable to perform list after undergoing two surgical procedures on his right knee during the offseason. He did not take part in training camp or the preseason but has been seeing work in practice for the last couple of weeks. If he is not activated, he will remain on the PUP list for the remainder of the season.
“We’ll see how he does this week. He’s practiced for the last, probably, five or six practices that we’ve had, doing a little bit better every day. So we’ll see where we are, consult the doctors and consult Ryan and make a decision,” Dungy said.