Originally created 11/22/05

Goldberg: Unbeaten Colts must look at big picture



Indianapolis is the first team since Denver in 1998 to start 10-0. So talk turns naturally to the prospect of an unbeaten season, the first since the Dolphins did it in 1972.

Unlikely.

But the Colts would gladly settle for the Super Bowl victory the Broncos got that season after finishing 14-2, which is why home-field advantage in the playoffs is top priority. Right now, they are certainly on track for that - and for the Super Bowl, in which they will be favored regardless of opponent.

Indianapolis may have enhanced its chances by demonstrating in Sunday's 45-37 win at Cincinnati that it can still win a shootout. That's what the Colts did so often the past few years, before they had a defense that could regularly stop opponents.

"That didn't feel totally unfamiliar to me out there," said Peyton Manning, who threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns in that game and might get rehired by the fantasy players who previously fired him. "It hasn't really happened this year. But we've had some games where we've been able to come out and get hot and stay hot."

Going unbeaten is certainly a goal no one can put aside. But indoor teams need home-field advantage more than teams like New England, which won two AFC title games in Pittsburgh.

A look at the races after 10 games, the traditional turn for home.

AFC

The closest team to the Colts is Denver, which at 8-2 holds a two-game lead in the West over San Diego and Kansas City.

These Broncos are much better than the Broncos who surrendered 45 points in playoff blowouts at Indy in each of the past two years. But their schedule, beginning with Thursday's game at Dallas, is at least as daunting as the one facing the Colts - they also are at the Chiefs and Chargers, who they beat at home.

So even assuming that Indy loses one or two - the schedule includes the Steelers and Chargers at home and the Jaguars and Seahawks on the road - it's a pretty safe bet the Colts will get home-field advantage for the playoffs.

In fact, the second-best thing that happened to Indianapolis on Sunday was Pittsburgh's loss at Baltimore. That left the Steelers three games back, meaning even if the Colts lose to them next Monday night with Ben Roethlisberger back, they still aren't in major jeopardy of losing the home-field edge.

One team to watch could be the Patriots, simply because they're the Patriots, who at 6-4 have a two-game lead in the East over Buffalo.

They almost surely will win the division because the Bills, Jets and Dolphins are mediocre (Buffalo) or bad (the other two). That gives New England a first-round game in Foxborough against a wild-card team, probably the Jaguars, Chargers or Bengals. Playing in Foxborough in January is not a good thing for visitors, especially if Corey Dillon gets healthy and the secondary gets experience.

So make it the Patriots in the East, the Colts in the South, the Broncos in the West and probably the Steelers in the North - they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati and match up well enough to beat them again.

The Jaguars (7-3) look like one wild-card team (soft schedule), with the Bengals, Chiefs or Chargers the other. The Bengals look like the best bet because the teams in the West may beat up each other, and if Antonio Gates' foot injury keeps him out, the Chargers are vulnerable.

NFC

In its simplest form, the NFC race is six teams competing for seven spots.

The Seahawks and Bears are just about guaranteed titles in the West and North because nobody else is any good. Pick four more from the Cowboys, Giants, Bucs, Panthers and Falcons for titles in the East and South, plus two wild-card spots.

In a conference that was so bad last season that two 8-8 teams made the playoffs, it could take 10-6 to get there this year. There is no dominant team, but a pack of OK teams in various stages of development.

Seattle (8-2) has the inside track on home-field advantage, especially if it beats the Giants at home this Sunday. In fact, the Seahawks can clinch the West by winning if St. Louis loses in Houston - although neither is a given.

In any case, Seattle will win it eventually. The Seahawks will also get home-field advantage. It's hard to see them at worse than 11-5 because they are home for their toughest games, the Giants and Colts, and their "tough" road game is against the Eagles, nowhere near as difficult as it once looked.

In fact, the Seahawks might even get a break against the Colts in Week 15 because Indy won't try very hard if it's clinched everything and doesn't have an unbeaten season to play for.

The biggest surprise: the Bears (7-3), who will win the North. And it's not by default. Their 13-3 win over Carolina on Sunday demonstrated that even with rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback they belong with the other contenders especially because their defense might be the best single unit in the NFL.

With Philadelphia gone and Washington fading, the East comes down to the Giants and Cowboys, two quirky teams with a penchant for winning games they shouldn't and losing games they should win. Both are 7-3 and have tough games coming up: Dallas at home to Denver on Thanksgiving, New York at Seattle.

Tough call. But...

The Giants, who lost in Dallas in overtime, will beat the Cowboys on Dec. 4 at the Meadowlands because Drew Bledsoe turns the ball over. Giants win the division; Cowboys get a wild card.

The Bucs are the surprise, tied at 7-3 for first in the South with the Panthers, a game ahead of the Falcons.

They have now won two straight with Chris Simms at quarterback after losing three of four. While Simms, who started two of the losses, is improving, the key seems to be Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. He set a record with 100-plus yards in the first three starts, then didn't have another 100-yard game until Sunday's win in Atlanta, largely because of a foot injury.

Carolina?

It was a preseason favorite for the Super Bowl and had won six straight until Sunday's loss. Make Sunday a bad day and give it the division title.

The other wild-card? Despite Cadillac, the Bucs still have a young QB and could lose four more games. That's enough for Atlanta to prevail.

If getting a wild-card berth is prevailing.

But that's the NFC.