'Three steel poles in the Colts' foundation'

Thursday could be the last home game for Colts Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday and Robert Mathis. US Presswire, Getty Images, Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- There’ll be no ceremony at Lucas Oil Stadium tonight. No formal passing of the torch from the Colts to the Texans as kings of the AFC South, and no official commemoration of the careers of three huge contributors who may be wearing horse shoes on their helmets for a final home game.

But the knowledgeable fans of the Indianapolis Colts will find a moment to focus on receiver Reggie Wayne, center Jeff Saturday and defensive end Robert Mathis, knowing that the team staples with expiring contracts may soon depart.

Quarterback Peyton Manning defined the era more than anyone, and he might also be on the sideline for the final time, but he’s not playing. Neither is linebacker Gary Brackett, who could be a cap casualty. It could be a swan song, too, for often-injured tight end Dallas Clark, who’s doubtful against the Texans.

However, the focus during a Thursday night game that figured to have larger consequences when the schedule was drawn up should be on Wayne, Saturday and Mathis.

“We’re like three steel poles in the Colts’ foundation,” Mathis said. “We helped get this team to where it is. Our heart is here. But it’s a business, and we can’t take it personally, whatever they decide.”

Said Wayne: “I’ll just keep playing. Whatever happens is going to happen anyway, it’s already written, I can’t control that, I don’t have a magic eraser. It’s a big prime-time game. If it’s going to be my last one here, then let’s go out with a bang.”

“I’ve been here 11 years. Anything you put that much time or effort into, you would think there would be some sort of sentimental value to. You don’t want to lose anything that means something to you. This city has shown me nothing but love.”

Whether they admit it or not, the other three teams in the division have been built to challenge the Colts. The Texans drafted outside linebacker Mario Williams first overall in 2006 in large part to threaten Manning. As the league has become more pass-happy, the Colts' divisional challengers have been largely run-based, to try to keep their offenses on the field and the ball out of Manning’s hand.

“They’ve been the standard of the division obviously, with the success they’ve had over multiple years,” said Houston general manager Rick Smith, who assumed his post in 2006, after Williams had been drafted. “But you can’t stand in awe of anybody and we feel like we’ve played some solid games against them in the past.

“Our thing hasn’t really been focused on Indianapolis, it’s been about what we’re doing. You’ve got to respect what they’ve done and the job that they’ve done for the number of years that they’ve done it. But what we’ve been doing is focused on trying to get our program up to speed and put ourselves into position where we could have that sustained success for a number of years.”

And like the Colts, the new AFC South champs have a similar trio in the same positions as Wayne, Saturday and Mathis in Andre Johnson, Chris Myers and Williams.

Like their Indianapolis counterparts, they are regarded as premier players at their position. Houston hopes they will be steel poles of a Texans’ foundation for years to come.

Johnson, Myers and Williams reflected on the Colts in recent days.

Here’s some insight into what the three guys who might be playing for Indy for the final time have meant to the division and to guys who aim to follow a similar path.

Johnson on Wayne: “He’s a route technician. I sat and watched and learned from him at Miami. He took me under his wing. He works hard at everything he does, everything. He’s committed. His numbers speak for themselves. In every conversation about the best receivers in the league, his name comes up.

“I can’t imagine him in another uniform, and for it to end like this. After 11, 12, 13, 14 wins every year, it’s crazy.

Myers on Saturday: “He has real good technique. Obviously it’s a different team with a different offense. But he’s a tremendous pass blocker, and they’ve had success running the ball as well with Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai for years. He’s a little bit shorter, he’s got that leverage on guys. In his prime, he’s been able to get a hand on guys and just lock guys out, that’s what he’s been known for.

“When you’re watching defenses, you watch the other center. And I’ve tried to get pointers from each guy. For a long time I’ve been watching how he pass protects.”

Williams on Mathis: “Not taking anything away from Dwight Freeney, but I think Mathis has been a key to their defense. Watching him play and how his motor goes every play, it’s not just the pass, but he’s phenomenal against the run. I guess you could say he’s undersized, but he holds his own against the run as well as the pass. I think he doesn’t get enough credit for his play against the run.”

I have trouble picturing Saturday playing elsewhere, but he certainly could. Wayne and Mathis would be attractive free agents if they hit the market.

And they could conceivably land within the division.

Mathis could be the edge rusher Jacksonville needs to round out its defense. And Wayne could be an excellent complement to Johnson in Houston.

“We joke about it all the time,” Johnson said. “If Reggie’s on the market, I’ll be a big recruiter. I’m pretty sure my coaches know that.”

Talk of a possible future life as a Texan made Wayne laugh.

“I’m sure he’s got some hammies he needs to worry about first,” he said, referring to hamstring injuries that have cost Johnson much of the season and will keep him out against the Colts. “And I am sure their team is ecstatic about their first playoff opportunity…

“If Dre is going to politic for me, he’s got enough time to do it.”