INDIANAPOLIS -- With eight straight playoff berths and six AFC South titles in the last seven years, it's almost as if the Indianapolis Colts are grandfathered into the postseason.
They're not, of course, and Indy's players feel no sense of entitlement regarding their place in the playoffs, despite winning at least 12 games each of the last seven years.
"It's very special. I've never taken that for granted," Peyton Manning said Sunday. "This is kind of a more normal football season."
Offensive tackle Ryan Diem put it even better: "Usually, we're resting guys this time of year."
Maybe so, but raise your hand if you didn't see this coming.
The youthful and hungry Jacksonville Jaguars -- with their powerful running game and red-hot tailback -- came to Lucas Oil Field with a chance to clinch the division and send the injury-riddle Colts -- who've struggled all season to stop the run -- out to playoff pasture.
Guess what happened?
The Colts not only stopped the run, they trampled the Jaguars for 155 rushing yards of their own, including 129 from Donald Brown, to retake control of the AFC South -- and with it, their season's destiny.
Colts back in first place.
"They heard all week how they couldn't stop our run game," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said. "I thought they did a pretty good job."
The Jaguars, averaging 158 yards per game rushing coming in, finished with just 67 against a defense that was surrendering more than 140 a game. Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's No. 2 rusher with six straight 100-yard games, finished with just 46 on 15 carries.
"That's why you play on Sundays," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said with a smile. "Regardless of who says what during pregame or on Fridays -- how the Jags will run every play for about 200 yards -- that doesn't matter. We've been there before. We know what it takes to win these games."
Leave it to the Colts -- even a beaten-up version with Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders on injured reserve, Joseph Addai and Kelvin Hayden sidelined with lengthy injuries, and cobbled together by 18 undrafted free agents on the active roster -- to play like the battle-tested bunch they are in a high-stakes December affair.
"I think we talked with our pads today," safety Antoine Bethea said.
And their big-game know-how.
Indianapolis (8-6) jumped to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter and a two-touchdown lead late in the third, only to watch the Jags (8-6) close to three points pending an onside kick just inside the two-minute warning. Josh Scobee's boot skipped right to Indianapolis up-man Tyjuan Hagler, who split the Jacksonville coverage for a 41-yard kickoff return to ice the game and leave the Jaguars in need of help the final two games of the season.
"Our backs have been against the wall for a couple of weeks now," Indy coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's just one of those things where you have to play well or else you're not going to have an opportunity to do anything further."
A playoff bracket without the Colts would seem like Christmas without the carols.
"It was win or go home," Diem said. "We put ourselves behind the eight-ball earlier in the year, so every time out is going to be a playoff game for us."
The Colts dropped three straight and four of five to force them into elimination-mentality mode. Manning was a huge part of that tailspin, throwing 11 interceptions over a three-game span, four of which were returned for touchdowns.
But Manning had no turnovers 10 days ago as the Colts righted themselves with a road defeat of Tennessee. And it was more of the same Sunday -- Manning completed 29 of his 39 throws for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Despite that, it was Indy's ground game, the worst in the league at 79.7 yards per game, that proved the difference against Jacksonville. Brown broke off a 49-yard run to set up his team's first touchdown, then ripped off a 43-yard scoring run in the third period two plays after Del Rio gambled (and lost) and a fourth-and-1 from his 39.
"If we're going to beat these guys, we have to be able to get a yard when we need it," Del Rio said.
Conversely, if the Colts are to be a serious contender, they need some facsimile of a running game.
Brown, a first-round pick from Connecticut in 2009, was just the second Colt to ring up a 100-yard rushing performance the last three years. That had to be satisfying, especially given how much the offense suffers when Addai, out since Week 6 with a neck injury, can be in the backfield.
"Yes," Brown said. "But it feel feels better to win."
That's because Indianapolis can clinch its ninth straight playoff berth and seventh AFC South title in eight years by winning at Oakland next week and closing the season with a home win against Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville will be hoping for help from Indy's opponents or from those facing the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers, each of whom currently own tiebreakers against the Jaguars for wild-card privileges.
In other words, it's a normal season. Sort of.
"It's different than what most guys are used to," Manning said.
Yeah, but the Colts are back in first place in time for Santa Claus to get here.
You know, like a normal season.
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