Colts find themselves back on top of AFC SouthIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, center, waves to fans as he leaves the field following an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. The Colts defeated the Seahawks 34-28. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Antoine Bethea won four division championships in his first six seasons with the Colts.
Being back on top of the AFC South this season feels every bit as good.
After spending two years chasing Houston in the AFC South, the new-look Colts are suddenly in control of the division chase for the first time since Andrew Luck replaced Peyton Manning.
''I think that's what everybody's goal is, to be that head honcho in their division. The first couple years here, that's what we were,'' Bethea told reporters on a conference call Monday. ''They had to come through us to win the division. The past couple years, it's been Houston. For us to be up there at the top, that means a lot for this team.''
Bethea has witnessed just about every possible scenario since the Colts drafted him in 2006.
He's played on two AFC championship teams and won a Super Bowl. He's been to two Pro Bowls, lined up next to the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2007 and across from the NFL's only four-time MVP. He helped the Colts chase perfection in 2009, avoid the dubious distinction of becoming the second 0-16 team in league history in 2011 and was a cornerstone in Indy's historic nine-game improvement from 2011 to 2012.
Now, Bethea is part of another milestone - the first Colts' team in nearly 17 years to have sole possession of a division lead without Manning calling the shots. The last time it happened was the week of Oct. 13, 1996 when the Colts were still part of the AFC East, Manning was at Tennessee and Jim Harbaugh was Indy's starting quarterback..
Veterans like Bethea understand this is no time to celebrate. They have to work relentlessly during this next five-week stretch to stay ahead of Tennessee (3-2) and two-time defending champion Houston (2-3).
Indy (4-1) visits San Diego next Monday, then hosts unbeaten Denver in Manning's return to Indy. They'll have two weeks to prepare for a trip to Houston on Nov. 3, and visit Tennessee eleven days later.
The reeling Texans will play at unbeaten Kansas City on Oct. 20, get a bye before facing the Colts and then visit surprising Arizona on Nov. 10
Tennessee, meanwhile, faces Seattle and San Francisco the next two weeks, possibly without the injured Jake Clocker, before hosting the Colts on Nov. 14.
''I don't think you'll see any of these guys walk around with their chest puffed out like a robin, walking around the yard after a big rain storm, bunch of worms out there, all robined up,'' Colts coach Chuck Pagano said when asked whether the team's mood. ''We're not going there. We'll keep reminding them it's a short ride from the penthouse to the outhouse.''
Even when it's not necessarily warranted.
On Monday, the Colts cut backup defensive lineman Lawrence Guy less than 24 hours after he had three tackles, batted down a Russell Wilson pass and blocked a field goal that the Colts returned for a touchdown in Sunday's 34-28 win over Seattle.
Releasing Guy cleared a spot for to activate receiver LaVon Brazill, who is returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
After making the move, Pagano explained that Guy had played well in his second stint with the Colts but with the Colts in the midst of a title chase, they had to make a tough call.
But Indy's resume looks better each week.
Houston has already lost a home division game, to Tennessee, while the Colts won their only AFC South game, at Jacksonville. Houston also has lost to NFC favorites San Francisco and Seattle, two teams the Colts have beaten. A win next week would give Indy a 3-0 road record in mid-October, too.
And there's no indication yet that Indy is about to take a step back.
Luck's completion percentage has increased and his interception rate has decreased. Indy also has a burgeoning ground game that is No. 4 in the NFL.
Robert Mathis leads the league with 9 1/2 sacks, the Colts have picked off seven passes in five games and only five teams - Carolina, Kansas City, New England, Tampa Bay and New Orleans - have allowed fewer points than Indy (79).
It doesn't get much better for Bethea and his teammates.
''We came into the year saying that's our goal, to win our division,'' Bethea said. ''If we win our division, it gives us a spot in the playoffs. We've got to keep that. We've got to stay hungry. We have some good teams in our division. Tennessee is playing well. We know Houston is going to bounce back and play well. We've just got to continue to do the things we've been doing so far and just keep playing well.''
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