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Colts can clinch AFC South title at Houston

| Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts spent the entire offseason talking about the importance of winning back the AFC South title.

Now with the unbeaten Colts on the verge of achieving their first major goal, they'd rather the discussion be about anything else. They insist Sunday's trip to Houston is just another game.

"No, I did not know that," left tackle Charlie Johnson said when asked Wednesday whether he could recite the division-clinching scenario.

It's simple.

If the Colts (10-0) beat the Texans for the 15th time in 16 games and Jacksonville loses at San Francisco, Indy will be AFC South champs for the sixth time in seven years. It would ensure Indy of hosting its first playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium, not that anybody dare mention it so soon.

Players like Johnson and rookie receiver Austin Collie insist they are so focused on this week's task — just winning on the road — they didn't have time to consider the bigger picture.

"There's a sign in our locker room, you've probably seen it toward the weight room, and it's a quote from Joe Paterno," coach Jim Caldwell said. "It says, 'Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.' So what I do is talk about what we need to do to win. I figure if we prepare like we have been all along, everything else will take care of itself."

Things have gone perfectly for Caldwell so far.

He's the first rookie coach in league history to start a season 10-0 and he's tied Wally Lemm for most consecutive wins to start a career, though it took Lemm two stops to do it — winning nine straight with the Houston Oilers in 1961 and the 1962 season opener with the St. Louis Cardinals.

What's most impressive is how the Colts are winning.

The last four victories have come by four points or fewer. The previous four all came by double digits. Indy has needed defensive stops to end comebacks and needed three-time MVP Peyton Manning to lead both frantic rallies and deliberate drives.

That combination has given Indy a chance to clinch arguably the NFL's strongest division earlier than anybody could have projected two months ago. The four AFC South teams have a combined total of 25 wins, the most in the NFL, and even when division leaders are excluded from the equation only the NFC East can match the AFC South with 15 victories.

So the Colts don't want to waste an opportunity to lock things up.

"We've been playing well. We're undefeated, and we do have a tough division," defensive lineman Raheem Brock said. "So we want to get that clinched as early as possible."

Veterans who remember the 13-0 start in 2005, then the embarrassment of losing in the divisional round, call discussion about a perfect season premature. The winning streak, which is now two wins short of New England's record set from 2006-08, is off limits, too.

Clinching the division this weekend isn't high on the discussion list, either.

"We've really not thought about that or talked about that," Manning said. "All we're preparing for is to go down there and beat Houston."

Then they can focus on the other goals — earning the AFC's top seed, assuring themselves of not playing outdoors between the regular-season finale at Buffalo and the Super Bowl in Miami and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in four years.

It's all part of the plan.

"Winning the division is the only way you guarantee yourself anything, that's what we've said since training camp," Johnson said. "That's the goal we set."

And now it's within reach.

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