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The Indianapolis Colts have already accomplished all they can for the regular season, but they aren’t looking to take it easy yet despite a rash of injuries.
The Colts, who have clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, look to win their sixth straight game and remain unbeaten in the division when they host the Houston Texans on Sunday.
Indianapolis (12-2) became the first team in NFL history to put together five straight 12-win seasons with last week’s 21-14 victory at Oakland. The Colts clinched a fifth consecutive AFC South title and secured the seed behind unbeaten New England in the conference, meaning that they will get a first-round bye before opening the playoffs at home on Jan. 12 or 13.
That doesn’t mean that Indianapolis plans to approach the final two games of the regular season any differently. Part of that reasoning likely stems from when the Colts rested starters for the final two games of the 2005 season, had a bye week and then lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
It’s a scenario the Colts hope they’ve learned from.
“We definitely want to maintain that rhythm and continue to improve,” coach Tony Dungy said. “We have a lot of guys who need to play and who need to play more. We have some guys who probably we can rest. But a month is a long time to rest, so we have to continue to practice well and gear up.”
The biggest question mark surrounding the defending Super Bowl champions is the status of star receiver Marvin Harrison, who has missed eight straight games with a knee injury. If Harrison is to return before the postseason, it will have to be in next week’s finale against Tennessee.
“He will not play this following weekend, I can assure you of that,” team president Bill Polian said Monday night on his weekly radio show. “His knee has healed, it’s a matter of conditioning now, and until we can put him out there for 60 plays a game, he won’t play.”
A defense that featured only two starters from last year’s Super Bowl-winning unit during last week’s victory also has plenty of injuries to contend with. Defensive end Robert Mathis (knee), safety Antoine Bethea (knee) and defensive tackle Raheem Brock (ribs) were among the starters out last weekend.
One source of motivation for the Colts is their nine-game home winning streak against AFC South foes. Indianapolis is 4-0 overall in the division after going 3-3 in 2006, and the South is the only division without a losing team.
“With the home division games, you never want to lose those,” Dungy said. “We want to be cautious with the guys we need to be cautious with. I think we’ll determine who can play and who can’t, and the guys that play, we’ll play it like a regular game.”
The Colts are 10-1 against the Texans (7-7), winning all five home meetings by at least nine points. Joseph Addai ran for two scores and Peyton Manning threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark in a 30-24 win at Houston on Sept. 23.
That was when Houston had Matt Schaub at quarterback, but current QB Sage Rosenfels has given the club a major spark, guiding the Texans to consecutive wins in place of the injured Schaub. Rosenfels improved to 3-0 as a starter this year with Thursday’s 31-13 victory over Denver.
Houston, eliminated from playoff contention over the weekend, can finish without a losing record for the first time with one more victory.
“In order for you to be a successful football team, you have to just take steps toward our goal and that’s getting to the playoffs and then eventually one day winning the Super Bowl,” Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson said. “So we have to start off by having a winning season and that’s something we’ve never had and we’re going to work toward getting that these last two games.”
A big reason for Houston’s improvement has been the impressive second season of 2006 top overall draft pick Mario Williams, who has nine sacks in his last five games. The defensive end had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks against Denver to push his AFC-leading total to 13.
Williams, however, has never sacked Manning in three games. Manning has 26 touchdown passes and just four interceptions against Houston.
Williams wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl, leaving linebacker DeMeco Ryans as the lone Texan selected. The Colts had five players chosen, including Manning and Addai - who will make his first appearance.
Addai, though, has been limited to an average of 52.5 yards over his last six games, with a yards-per-carry average of 3.1.