HOUSTON, Dec. 12 -- Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning wore a smile, a nicely tailored brown suit and a black cap with the words AFC South champions written on it after his team clinched its second straight division title Sunday in a 23-14 victory over the Houston Texans. Never mind that he didn't break the NFL single-season record for touchdown passes, he insisted.
"The idea is to win," he said.
Peyton Manning is just three touchdowns short of granting this fan's wish for the season record. The Colts clinched the AFC South.
(Richard Carson -- Reuters)
After Manning had thrown two scoring passes in the first 11 1/2 minutes for a 14-0 lead, putting him two short of tying Dan Marino's record of 48, it looked as if the idea was for him to keep picking apart the Texans' defense until he had broken the mark set in 1984 by one of his childhood heroes.
Instead, the Texans (5-8) began to play a two-(very)-deep zone, started blitzing from every which way and provided something of a blueprint for success for future Colts opponents by holding the highest-scoring team in the league to only three second-half field goals. Trying to become the first team to score more than 40 points in five straight games, Indianapolis (10-3) instead posted its season-low points total.
"I had a feeling it was going to be like this," Manning said. "Houston tightened up and didn't show us much man-to-man. . . . They were trying to keep everything in front of them and keep our receivers in front of them. . . . We did some things to hurt ourselves with penalties and missed some opportunities. But we just kept grinding. . . . The whole idea was to win the division."
Manning did set one league record in his team's sixth straight triumph. His second scoring pass, a 12-yarder to wide receiver Reggie Wayne, made him the first quarterback to have at least two touchdown throws in 13 straight games; the previous mark was shared by Marino, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Don Meredith.
Manning's first scoring pass, a three-yard toss to Marvin Harrison, moved both men closer to becoming the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandem in the game. It was the 81st touchdown pass Harrison caught from Manning, leaving them four shy of tying the league record of 85 by retired San Francisco quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice, when both were with the 49ers.
Manning, who completed 26 of 33 throws for 298 yards and was not intercepted, clearly has grown weary of answering questions about Marino's record, saying at one point: "I hate to keep beating a dead horse. . . . For us to win, I feel like I have to do my part. That means throwing touchdowns, or checking down to running plays on third down. I need to do whatever it takes to win, and any records that come along with that is great. The idea is to play your best ball in the month of December. We can't have any lapses."
On a sunny, 70-degree day, Manning and running back Edgerrin James (28 carries, 104 rushing yards) both had mild complaints about a damp playing surface, especially in a stadium where the retractable roof is supposed to be closed when it rains. When Manning was asked if he thought the Texans may have watered the field a bit to slow the Colts, he smiled and said, "You said that, not me."
Colts Coach Tony Dungy was delighted to have his team play in a game that was still close in the fourth quarter after so many recent blowouts. He said that can only help down the stretch, especially against three potential playoff teams -- Baltimore, San Diego and Denver -- with three of the league's top defenses in the final three regular season games.
"We'll be a little disappointed with our performance," Dungy said. "But when you play good defenses, you won't get 50 points every week. . . . It turned out to be a dogfight right down to the wire. To be honest, I'm kind of glad it went that way because as we go along here, the games are going to be more like that. We had to make some plays in the second half this week, and we did that."
The Texans managed to get within 17-14 on running back Domanick Davis's 15-yard touchdown run with 6 minutes 18 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Texans Coach Dom Capers said running the football gave his team its best chance to stay in the game against the Colts' high-octane offense, and Davis allowed him to execute that strategy with 128 yards on 23 carries, and 73 more yards on six receptions.
"When you play these guys, you have to make a decision and we decided to make them run the ball," Capers said. "We felt that would be the best chance of hanging in there and competing and slowing their offense down. . . . There's a reason they're number one in offense."
But the Colts also showed they can play a little defense.
They forced two turnovers, sacked Texans quarterback David Carr five times and stuffed the Texans to force punts on their first two drives of the fourth quarter. The Colts offense converted each of those stops into Mike Vanderjagt field goals, a 43-yarder for a 20-14 lead with 7:43 remaining, and a 44-yarder with 1:56 left for a 23-14 advantage that ended any suspense.
"We definitely want that divisional title to get us in the playoffs," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had three of the Colts' sacks. "But by no means are we satisfied. We're not ready to stop. I'm not going to wear that divisional title shirt, because the first shirt I wear is the Super Bowl shirt."