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The Pro Football Notebook


December 31, 2010 7:43 AM

Colts Close In On AFC South

Freeney.jpgIt's been a long, tough, injury-riddled road for Indianapolis this year, but in Week 17 they are sitting here with a chance to win a home game against Tennessee and wrap up their seventh division title in the nine-year history of the AFC South. One has to like their chances of finishing the job. The running game has found a sudden rebirth these last couple weeks. First it was Donald Brown two weeks ago against Jacksonville, last week it was Dominic Rhodes in Oakland. If one or the other is able to play well on Sunday, the Colts will coast on in. Even if they don't, it's possible Peyton Manning could gun his team to one last victory. Tennessee's only real hope is to play a grind-it-out style, get Chris Johnson established and hope they can pull one out at the wire. They can't get in a situation where the game is opened up. Manning had a big night in their first meeting, a 30-28 win that took late points by the Titans to make the score close. This is why, as important as the running game has been for Indy these last two weeks--and as much as the lack of it has hurt them in key spots this year--Sunday is a day that has to be Manning's time. He's at home, in a big game, against a team that can't keep up if it turns into a passing race. Turn the veteran loose. Indy wins this one and wraps up a home playoff game next week.

As Indy-Tennessee is going on, Jacksonville will be in Houston hoping for a break that will let them in the backdoor. But the Jags are being hit with more late injuries. They missed Maurice Jones-Drew in last week's loss to Washington. He'll be back Sunday, but now David Garrard is out and Trent Edwards will quarterback the biggest game of the season. On the other side of the ball Houston is missing receiver Andre Johnson. Even without Johnson, the Texans are the more talented team and they're playing at home. But there's no evidence in December that their heads are at all into playing football. I generally dislike picking games on this basis, because it involves too much speculation on things we really have no idea about. In the case of Houston, the collapse in their on-field performance this month make it far less speculative. Jacksonville wins an ugly game.

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The AFC West reaches an anti-climactic finish. Kansas City will be hosting a playoff game next week against either Baltimore, New York or Pittsburgh and should rest starters. They could slip from the #3 seed to the #4 seed if they lose and Indianapolis wins. At the #3 seed they'd be guaranteed to avoid New England until the conference championship game, whereas the #4 could be going to Foxboro in Round 2. So there is an argument for playing to hold the #3 spot, but I don't believe its compelling enough to risk injury. You're going to have to beat the Patriots eventually if you want to get to that Super Bowl, so you may as well make sure you're healthy. The other West game is San Diego-Denver. I'm interested to see if the Chargers have enough heart to come out and play this game to win. They're still going for nine wins and a winning season. It's far from what was expected, but that's still a benchmark that a team with pride should fight for.

Image from somuchsports.com

Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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