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AFC South winners seeking momentum for playoffs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

Coach Chuck Pagano won't give anybody a break over the next three weeks.

With his offense still struggling to get out of its early-game funk, a defense yielding far too many points and coverage units that have been anything but special, the Colts know there's too much to fix to take a break.

So they will play out the season with as many starters as possible.

''We talked today and said, `They gave us 16 games, we're playing 16 games,''' Pagano said Monday. ''Right now, we've got a lot of things to get better at. We have to go back to work and play good football, consistent football for 60 minutes.''

Colts fans should welcome the philosophical change.

After spending years watching team officials rest players when nothing more could be achieved in the playoff hunt - they threw away a shot at a perfect season in 2009 - Pagano made it clear Monday this season would be different.

Indy (8-5), a 42-28 loser at Cincinnati, has the luxury of resting players after Tennessee's loss at Denver handed the Colts the AFC South title.

Barring a dramatic change, the Colts will be the No. 4 seed behind AFC West leader Denver (11-2), East leader New England (10-3) and the North-leading Bengals (9-4), who now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

This is not how the Colts wanted to go into the playoffs.

''You never want to backdoor your way into it, but we won (the division),'' NFL sacks leader Robert Mathis said. ''We're in there, punched our ticket to the playoffs. We just have to hit the switch. We have to turn it up and we have to get on the right track: offense, defense and special teams.''

Finding flaws shouldn't be difficult. Fixing them might be.

Indy has been outscored 114-24 in the first halves of the last six games, forcing Andrew Luck to take to the air. On Sunday, it was more of the same, though Luck did find some new targets by throwing two touchdowns each to LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers. That's a promising sign for an offense that has struggled mightily since losing Reggie Wayne for the season Oct. 20.

But the offensive line still allowed too much pressure on the star quarterback and couldn't get Indy's new power running game on track. That much change Sunday against Houston (2-12) as the Colts try to extend a streak of 29 games without back-to-back losses.

''There's no pity parties ever thrown here,'' Luck said. ''It's always get back to work and let's do what we know how to do. It's good to be resilient and hopefully we can keep that streak going.''

Defensively, things also are out of sync.

After investing tens of millions in free agency to give Pagano a stouter unit, the Colts have allowed their last six opponents to score 31.8 points per game.

But as Mathis knows, generating late-season momentum is not necessarily indicative of future playoff results.

A year ago, the Ravens lost four of their last five and still went on to win the Super Bowl. Mathis still tells tales about 2006 when the Colts lost three of four before winning the season finale, a span that included giving up more than 300 yards in a blowout loss to Jacksonville.

At the time, most were convinced the Colts would make an early exit. Instead, they beat Kansas City, won at Baltimore and rallied to beat the Patriots in the AFC title game before bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

And now, Mathis is hearing the same sort of complaints.

''You want to be consistent. If you can be consistent, we're tough to deal with,'' he said. ''I think we can go all the way when we play the style of football we know we can play.''

Pagano isn't dismissing the notion. He just knows things must get sharper over the next three weeks.

''There are signs in all three phases, in all these games where we do some really good stuff,'' Pagano said. ''We've just got to do it on a consistent basis.''

Note: The Colts put running back Chris Rainey on season-ending injured reserve Monday with a broken lower leg. They signed former Cowboys running back Tashard Choice to take his place on the 53-man active roster.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Tagged: Colts, Robert Mathis, Andrew Luck

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