Flirting with disaster

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Tony Dungy spent last December defending his decision to rest his players. Dungy is spending this December defending his players.

The Indianapolis Colts coach brings a 10-2 team to Jacksonville this weekend for a game of major importance in the Colts' quest to win a Super Bowl. A loss could cost the Colts homefield advantage for the playoffs.

"I think it's important to get the bye (week) when you don't have to play a game and still advance. That's an advantage. We'd love to have the whole thing and play every game at home, but I think the most important thing is winning enough to get that bye," Dungy said.

With a win this Sunday, the Colts will clinch their fourth consecutive AFC South title and would likely get a bye for the first week of the playoffs. A loss would delay the Colts' division title party and would drop them, possibly, into a tie with Baltimore and New England for the bye week. Ahead on the schedule for the Colts is a game against visiting Cincinnati.

This is a critical point in the season for the Colts, who've lost two of their last three games and have seen their quarterback, Peyton Manning, intercepted twice each in those two losses. The Colts came to Jacksonville in week 14 last season undefeated and in cruise control. Now, Dungy is in somewhat of a damage control mode.

"We were kind of flirting with some disasters earlier in the year and some of the things caught up with us. We had two games that we played on the road against teams that were playing pretty well. We had leads in the fourth quarter and couldn't hang on. In both games we had breakdowns. We had some turnovers. It's been kind of something we've flirted with all year and we have to get better in December, but we still have a lot of football left to play and I think we will get that fixed and be going in the right direction," Dungy said in analyzing his team's season.

The question is: Are the Colts as good as their record, or did they win some games early in the season that they should've lost?

Here's another question: Is Manning the same quarterback he was two years ago when he threw 49 touchdown passes? He currently has 22.

"I think that was a fairly easy year in a lot of ways," Dungy said of Manning's record-setting performance in the 2004 season. "We had people that hadn't played us a lot. We had people that thought the way to play these guys is to blitz them and put pressure on Manning and everybody was pretty much playing us the same way and we had some really big days, fairly easy, just throwing against one-on-one coverage and picking up blitzes," Dungy said.

These days, defenses have taken a softer approach to Manning. Opposing defenses are dropping deep and forcing Manning to throw underneath. They're taking away the big play and, clearly, the Colts' scoring output has dropped.

Two years ago, the Colts scored 522 points and reached the 30-point mark 10 times. This year, the Colts have scored 325 points through 12 games and have scored 30 or more points five times.

Dungy, however, says Manning is playing better this season than he did two seasons ago, based on the greater demands Manning is facing in 2006.

Manning remains the Colts' savior. He's the guy who makes it all happen on a team that sports one of the worst run-defenses in NFL history. The Colts can only win if Manning has a big day and, recently, he has had two bad ones.

Can the Jaguars make it three?

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