Chuck Pagano has never made it a secret that his top priority as the Indianapolis Colts' coach is to make sure his franchise quarterback has adequate protection.
Keeping pass rushers away from Andrew Luck may be even more difficult with a banged-up offensive line Sunday as the visiting Colts try to clinch the AFC South title against the defensively stout Cincinnati Bengals.
As a rookie last season, Luck helped guide the Colts to an 11-5 record and a postseason berth despite being sacked 41 times, fourth-most in the NFL.
Luck has two touchdowns, five interceptions and a 66.7 passer rating over his last four contests, and he's been sacked 29 times this season. Though the overall frequency with which he's been sacked had decreased, he was dropped a season-worst five times in last week's 22-14 win over Tennessee.
Making matters potentially worse, right guard Jeff Linkenbach is week to week after suffering a partial quad tear. He was playing in place of former starter Mike McGlynn, who has been dealing with a fractured thumb suffered in the loss to St. Louis on Nov. 10.
Cincinnati (8-4) has recorded 18 sacks over its last five games - a stretch in which it's yielded an AFC-low 5.28 yards per pass attempt - leaving Pagano a bit worried heading into this matchup.
"It's our biggest concern right now, first and foremost," Pagano said. "That's been since Day 1, since we drafted him No. 1, to protect 12. That's never going to change."
Despite the uncertainty of the offensive line, the Colts (8-4) are in position to secure their eighth division title in 11 seasons with a win or a Tennessee loss to Denver. Sunday's winner also will have a leg up in the race for at least the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
"We're sitting in a good position, but nothing is sealed up," Pagano said. "We control our own destiny.
"They understand the record, they understand the division, they understand what we have to do to get into the playoffs. Certainly, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. The worst thing we can do is get complacent."
That hasn't been a problem for running back Donald Brown, who has fought to earn each and every carry this season. Slated as the backup to three different backs since training camp, Brown will make his second straight start after running for 54 yards last week.
His 4-yard scoring run with 1:56 remaining capped an 11-play, 92-yard drive and accounted for Indianapolis' only touchdown.
''I knew regardless of what happened, my number would get called in some form or fashion,'' Brown said. ''When it is, you just make the most of it.''
Though it has been tough at times, Brown always has accepted his role.
''He is the ultimate team guy,'' linebacker Robert Mathis said. ''He doesn't like to talk about himself because he's not his favorite subject. He just goes to work and he just lets his play do all the talking.''
Mathis has done just that this season, leading the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks. He's one full sack away from breaking Dwight Freeney's single-season and career franchise records.
Helping slow a solid Bengals running game may be his top priority Sunday, though. Cincinnati rushed for 164 yards in last week's 17-10 win at San Diego and has averaged 138.3 over its last four.
The Bengals have used a balanced attack with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard, as they are one of six teams yet to boast a 100-yard rusher. Green-Ellis finished with a season-best 92 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against the Chargers, while Bernard ran 14 times for 57 yards.
"It lets (offensive coordinator Jay Gruden) utilize his entire playbook and not limit him at all,'' Bernard said. ''If there's a situation where I need to go in, he'll throw me in. If there's a situation he wants Benny in, he'll throw him in. It definitely helps us and we definitely use it to our advantage.''
The Colts rank 28th in rush defense, allowing an average of 128.6 yards.
"I think for us we've been able to do different things. Certain games we've run the ball well and the run game has been working, and other games we've had to throw it a lot," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. "I think for us it depends on the game and what we're needing to do that's helped us win a lot of games this year.
"I think we can do so many different things, so as long as you're winning games and it's working, that's all that matters."
Dalton finished 14 of 23 for 190 yards, one touchdown and one interception last week, but he's thrown six TDs and nine interceptions with a 59.8 passer rating over his last four.
He threw for 264 yards and a touchdown pass to A.J. Green as Cincinnati beat Indianapolis 27-17 in the most recent meeting Oct. 16, 2011, snapping a seven-game skid in the series.
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