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Indy builds momentum before embarking on playoffs

AP - Sports
Indy builds momentum before embarking on playoffs
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Indianapolis has found a game plan that works.

The offense is starting faster and staying on the field longer. The defense is shutting down opponents and forcing miscues. And the wins are starting to pile up again.

It's about time the Colts get it right - and perhaps just in time to build some momentum for a playoff run.

''Teams who've won the Super Bowl in the past got hot at certain points in the season. They had their difficult times. They had parts where they were losing,'' defensive end Cory Redding said Monday.

''If you look at the Ravens last year, they were playing great. Middle of the season, they started getting injured. Then they went into a slump and then man, got to the playoffs and got hot. Look what they did.''

The Colts (10-5) are convinced they can follow the same blueprint this season, something that certainly looks more feasible now than it did two weeks ago when they clinched the AFC South despite a loss at Cincinnati.

Back then, Indy was in the midst of a six-game stretch in which it had been outscored 114-24 in the first half and allowed 38 or more points in three losses. Frustrated fans were convinced all those problems would lead to yet another early playoff exit.

Now, most of those fears have subsided thanks to lopsided wins over reeling Houston 25-3 at home, and a far more impressive 23-7 victory at playoff-bound Kansas City.

What's changed?

The defense is getting off the field on the third downs, has allowed just one touchdown and forced six turnovers over the past eight quarters and for the first time all season has been pressuring quarterbacks with someone other than AFC sacks leader Robert Mathis.

Indy's offense, which struggled mightily after Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a season-ending knee injury, also has regained its footing.

After going to the no-huddle offense early in each of the past two games, the Colts have rushed for 314 yards and controlled the clock for more than 71 minutes. Over the past 10 quarters, the Colts have scored 76 points.

And they've done all this after demoting running back Trent Richardson to a backup role, moving receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to special teams and using five different starting lineups along the offensive line over the past five weeks.

All they need to do now is keep it up.

''To be able to go on the road and beat a quality team like Kansas City with the crowd noise, the weather, all those things and be able to keep your blinders on and focus on the task at hand, it's huge for us because we've kind of rode the roller coaster,'' coach Chuck Pagano said.

It's made a difference inside and outside the locker room.

Receiver Griff Whalen, who has played a big part in this late-season turnaround, acknowledged Monday he has sensed more excitement around the team complex.

Pagano has been more relaxed the past two weeks and fans are starting to believe the Colts can get something done in the playoffs now that they have won back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 20 and Nov. 3 and can match their season best winning streak with a victory Sunday over Jacksonville (4-11).

Beat the Jags and the Colts could improve their postseason prospects by moving up from the No. 4 spot in the AFC pecking order.

Indy would jump Cincinnati (10-5) for the No. 3 spot with a win and a Bengals loss and would move into the No. 2 spot with a win and losses by the Bengals and Patriots.

Cincinnati closes out the regular season against defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore. New England hosts Buffalo on Sunday.

But rather than watch the scoreboards, the Colts are fine-tuning things.

Andrew Luck has only been sacked twice in the past three weeks, which has kept the offense on schedule.

The defense got starting cornerback Greg Toler (groin) back on the field for a few plays Sunday and could get starting defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois (foot) back in time for the playoffs, too. Add a few new wrinkles and there's no telling what the Colts could do.

''We're having more fun than the month of November, I could tell you that,'' Redding said. ''Right now, just the last three weeks, we've been playing very consistently. We've been playing together. We've been playing with energy. Our offense has been playing really good as well. It just goes hand in hand man.''

NOTES: An MRI on Redding's injured shoulder was negative, Pagano said. ... The Colts found out they would be playing Peyton Manning again next season, this time in Denver. Luck also will have head-to-head matchups at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots and Robert Griffin III and Washington. ... The team will begin selling playoff tickets Dec. 30. ... Pagano said offensive lineman Joe Reitz (concussion) has been cleared to practice and must pass another test later this week before he's cleared to play.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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