INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts own five straight division titles and have held at least a share of the AFC South lead in 95 of the past 109 weeks.
Now, they’re suddenly in trouble.
The up-and-down Colts find themselves at an uncharacteristic 3-3, three games behind division-leading Tennessee as they prepare for what could be a season-defining moment Monday night against the Titans in Nashville.
Clearly, the Colts understand the stakes. A loss puts them four games back in the loss column and down an early chip for a tiebreaker. A victory gives Indy hope, keeping them within two games of the division lead and still getting the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I think our players will watch the tape and they will see how well Tennessee is playing,” coach Tony Dungy said Monday. “I think we’ll know that if we don’t win this game, we really won’t have a chance to win the division, I don’t think.”
Dungy rarely makes such proclamations this early in the season.
To get themselves back in the division race, and remain a wild-card contender, the Colts need to start stringing together victories.
“Our first goal is to make it to the playoffs, and if you win your division you go to the playoffs,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. “Obviously, Tennessee is hot, and if we want to win our division, we’ve got to win this game.”
While Dungy is concerned the Colts haven’t played with their usual proficiency or consistency, he’s trying to keep things in perspective.
After all, he has been through this kind of start before.
“It probably would have been 1999, 2000 and 2001 in there, with Tampa,” Dungy said. “We had some slow starts, and we were always trying to figure out how we could play consistently. It was the same situation. What it comes down to is working your way through it, and not panicking and getting that sense of urgency without panicking.”
The Buccaneers opened all three of those seasons at 3-4 and finished strong to make the playoffs all three seasons.
Can the Colts produce similar results?
“Right now, we’re 3-3,” he said. “We’re a team that wins one, loses one, plays well part of the time, not well part of the time, and we’re just not a consistent football team right now. We have the makings of a good football team. We have individual components to be very good, but right now, we’re not clicking on all cylinders.”
When the Colts decided to punt on fourth-and-1 in the first half Sunday, Peyton Manning waved his arms, hoping Dungy would go for it.
Many Colts fans spent Monday wondering whether Dungy made a mistake.
Dungy acknowledged that if he had to do it over again, he may have made a different decision given the circumstances.
“When you go for it in your own territory early in the game, you either have a play that you really feel like is going to work and are very confident you are going to make it or you have a sense of desperation,” he said. “Had I known that we’d kick the ball down at their 10 and they would keep the ball eight minutes and score a touchdown, we probably would have gone for it.
“But I didn’t expect that to happen. I had confidence we could get them stopped and get the ball back. It all works together. In hindsight, the way the game went, I would have liked to have gone for it, but I don’t second guess.”
Manning’s 229 yards Sunday moved him past Dan Fouts and into eighth on the NFL’s career passing yardage list. Fouts finished with 43,040 yards, Manning has 43,157, and Drew Bledsoe is seventh at 44,611. ... In six games, the Colts have allowed five runners to top 100 yards in a game. ... The Colts and Saints are tied for 24th in penalties with 46. But of the eight teams behind them, only two – Oakland (49) and Cleveland (51) – have played six games. The others have played seven.