HOUSTON -- Nobody in the Indianapolis Colts' locker room, where the choices of garb on Sunday afternoon were baseball caps and T-shirts that trumpeted the team's second straight AFC South championship, was about to acknowledge the highest-scoring club in the NFL actually needed the kind of grueling test the Houston Texans provided.
But a game that failed to include the five touchdown passes that Peyton Manning needed to break Dan Marino's single-season record did produce a third straight postseason berth -- and a hint of what the AFC playoffs might resemble. And for that last element, it seemed, there were some Indianapolis players pleased to have to weather a real storm instead of celebrating another torrent of Manning touchdowns.
"I mean, it actually felt good to play all four quarters, you know?" said Edgerrin James, following a 23-14 victory, a game in which the star tailback rushed for 104 yards. "You practice all week and then, the way we've been going, you play three quarters and take a spot on the bench the rest of the way. Having a little pressure today, with this feeling a lot like the playoffs will, it probably helps us in a way. We were still playing from in front but just not 30 points in front. You don't see many 30-point leads in the playoffs."
Make no mistake -- in the minds of coach Tony Dungy, and many of his veterans, Sunday marked the unofficial start of the playoffs. The victory gave the Colts the distinction of being the first franchise in the AFC to secure a division title.
For a club that aspires to more than just an invitation to the Super Bowl derby, that was an achievement of which to be proud, Dungy allowed. Many of the patrons at Reliant Stadium -- certainly most of the record number of national media assembled in the press box here, of course -- were in attendance to see Manning break the touchdown pass mark.
Instead, the record will fall another day, perhaps next Sunday evening in the RCA Dome against the Baltimore Ravens. Certainly the outcome of Manning's day had to thrill the brass at the mothership in Bristol, Conn., since ESPN might now have the privilege of documenting the record-breaking moment.
Manning completed 26 of his 33 passes for 298 yards, with two touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a 124.5 efficiency rating. The yardage represented his sixth-best game of the season and his quarterback rating was his fourth highest of the year. While he set a league record with his 13th straight multiple-touchdown pass game, the two scoring tosses were the fewest Manning has had since registering a pair against Jacksonville on Oct. 3, the fourth game of the season.
Yet to have suggested that Manning played poorly, even though it was the first time all season that kicker Mike Vanderjagt had more field goals than the quarterback had touchdown passes, would be absurd. Despite registering their fewest points of the season, only the fourth time all year Indianapolis has been held under 31 points, the offense was efficient enough and the defense grew stouter as the game progressed.
"It was a good test for us and maybe we needed it if we're going to achieve the goals we have for ourselves," said Dungy.
This is a Colts team that, despite having only the third-best record in the conference and which figures to have to win on the road if it is to advance to the Super Bowl, feels it has a date with destiny. The critics continue to point out the shortcomings, most notably a defense that statistically ranks next to last in the NFL, but there remains a palpable sense among the Indianapolis players that they can achieve something truly special this year.
When you win by an average of 25.6 points, as the Colts had done in their previous five outings, and post an average of 42.6 points during such a torrid streak, confidence is just an assumed commodity. But the Colts came here not only counting on a far closer game than the 49-14 rout of Houston from a month ago, not only expecting the Texans to make a strong effort, but also essentially seeking a contest to help galvanize them for the postseason.
And they got just that.
Despite jumping to a quick 14-0 lead, with Manning throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the first 12 minutes of the contest, the Colts offense was forced to convert some sticky third-down situations in the final quarter and the defense had to come up with some stops. Manning and James came up big three times on third down, Vanderjagt hammered home three field goals and defensive end Dwight Freeney posted three sacks. So it was mission accomplished, as far as Freeney was concerned.
"Let's be honest, man, there aren't any 'gimme' games in the playoffs," said Freeney, who now has six sacks in the past two games and has tied his career best of 13. "You're going to have times, once you get to the playoffs, where you have to hang in and survive. That's what we did here today. That's how you get to the Super Bowl."
Freeney, who has teamed with second-year veteran end Robert Mathis to provide the Colts with the league's most prolific outside pass rush, declined to don the baseball caps and T-shirts doled out by the Indianapolis equipment men after the division-clinching win. He explained the only such paraphernalia he intends to wear is the T-shirt that accompanies a Super Bowl victory.
It's way too premature to suggest the Colts are title-game bound, but Sunday won't hurt them in the big picture, as they prepare for postseason play. While they never trailed, the Colts were forced to make plays, since their advantage through the middle portions of the game varied between three and seven points. After the Texans closed to 17-14 on tailback Domanick Davis' 15-yard scoring run midway through the third quarter, Indianapolis operated with precious little margin for error.
But the Colts worked the clock well, and it seemed like an Indianapolis lineman came up with a sack every time the defense needed to stiffen, as Houston quarterback David Carr was knocked down five times. He was also sacked five times in the season's earlier game against the Colts.
On offense, the Colts made timely, if not necessarily scoring, plays. Two of note, plays that will probably be forgotten by fans but not by Indianapolis players -- Manning twice hit wideout Reggie Wayne for significant gains on the final two drives, both possessions producing field goals. The first, a 26-yard gain, came on a second-and-7 play. The other, a 14-yard hookup on third-and-10 from the Indianapolis 39-yard line with just more than three minutes remaining, was probably even bigger.
On that play, Manning audibled at the line and Wayne made a slight adjustment as the Texans came with a blitz.
"It's the kind of stuff they do regularly," noted one downcast Houston defender as he left the stadium, "and our offense seems to almost never do."
With 128 rushing yards and 201 total yards from scrimmage, the hard-running Davis was a challenge, and there were stretches where the Indianapolis defense appeared staffed by a unit comprised of one-arm men. After the Texans closed to within three points, however, the Houston offense netted just 53 yards and three first downs on its ensuing three possessions. Those series produced two punts and a turnover on downs. Over that critical stretch, Davis had four carries for only 3 yards.
"People don't understand how good their defense can be when it's playing well," Davis said. "They're so quick to the ball, and when they're attacking, holes close up fast. We kept them close but, you know, there aren't any (moral) victories in this league."
No, the only ones that count are the real wins and, touchdown pass record or not, Manning was beaming at having secured the division title with a sixth straight victory that pushed the surging Colts to 10-3.
"I'm surprised, actually, that we clinched the division this early," Manning said. "Look around the AFC, guys, because there are a lot of good teams. There could be teams with 10 wins who don't make the playoffs. The other stuff, records and things like that, those will come if they're meant to come. And they should come within the flow of the game, not by being forced. We didn't force anything today and we got a big win. That's what makes me proud of this team."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.