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Magnificent Seven XXI: On the Indianapolis Colts' critical regular-season finale

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a long season, but somehow, finally, the Indianapolis Colts enter the regular-season finale with a chance to win a seventh AFC South title in eight seasons.

Unlike past seasons, the Colts have had to scrape and claw, and unlike past seasons, they have clinched nothing entering the final week of the season.

There's no talk of resting starters -- hard to rest when everything's on the line.

And that's the case Sunday. If the Colts beat Tennessee, they're in the playoffs. If they lose and Jacksonville beats Houston in Houston, the Jaguars will win the division.

Simple stuff. And exciting stuff.

And really, considering how the 2010 season went, it couldn't have played out any other way.

Now, on to Magnificent Seven . . .

7)Significant oversight. Thought the voters got things pretty much right when it came to the Colts' Pro Bowl selections this season with one exception: a strong case could have been made for safety Antoine Bethea. He has made the Pro Bowl twice, but this may have been his best season considering the rash of injuries around him in the secondary. Safety Bob Sanders has been out since Week 1 and Melvin Bullitt has been out close to that long. Cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden have been out the last month, and with Aaron Francisco, Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon playing extensively, the Colts have managed to win three consecutive games and move to within a victory over the AFC South title. Bethea made a huge interception against Jacksonville two weeks ago and leads the team in tackles. Hard to argue with the safeties who did make it, but Bethea's season has been too good to overlook. Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri also wasn't voted to the game – that despite missing just two field goals this season. But few will argue Billy Cundiff of Baltimore going, and Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas – who has missed just one field goal this season – also was left off the roster. Making the Pro Bowl as a kicker is tough, and the best kickers in the NFL don't always go. Doesn't take away what Vinatieri accomplished this season. In his 15thseason, he had one of his better seasons – certainly one of the best of his five with the Colts.

6)Deserving foursome. The four Colts that did make the Pro Bowl were obvious choices, and it struck you looking at the foursome that their appearance in the game together this season is fitting. Quarterback Peyton Manning (11), wide receiver Reggie Wayne (five) and defensive ends Dwight Freeney (six) and Robert Mathis (three) have a collective 25 Pro Bowl appearances, and all are players who have defined the Colts in recent seasons. They are core players and without any of them eight consecutive playoff appearances and six AFC South titles almost certainly wouldn't have happened. And throughout this season – perhaps the most laborious of the last nine – it's hard to imagine the Colts making it to the cusp of a record-tying ninth consecutive post-season appearances without any member of the group. They without question were the core this season and all will be on the Ring of Honor some day. Manning will be in the Hall of Fame, with perhaps one or two of the others. They all are approaching the stage of their careers where Pro Bowls are no longer a given, but to have them go together this season . . . well, there's just something fitting about it, is all.

5)Striking change. Loyal Magnificent readers – he knows who he is – will know this isn't usually a stat-oriented feature, but the turnaround of the Colts' running game is statistically striking. Indianapolis was 6-6 in early December, and had lost three consecutive games to New England, San Diego and Dallas. In those games, the Colts ran 20, 13 and 17 times and quarterback Peyton Manning threw 52, 48 and 48 passes. More significantly, he was intercepted 11 times, with four being returned for touchdowns. In three games since, the Colts have rushed 32, 24 and 39 times for 87, 155 and 191 yards. Manning has been intercepted just twice in that span, and the Colts have won three times to move to within a game of the AFC South title. It's still probably not accurate to call the Colts' an overpowering run offense, but they have figured a way late in the season to be productive offensively and play a winning style when they need it most. That's the mark of a quality team and solid coaching staff – one that can figure a way to succeed and get things turned around when circumstances such as injuries and a three-game losing streak could have led to a slide from postseason contention.

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