KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein; DirecTV, 7
SERIES: 15th meeting. The Denver Broncos lead the series, 10-4.
The two franchises first met in 1974. Denver won the last regular season meeting, taking a 31-17 win at the RCA Dome on Dec. 21, 2003. The Colts, however, returned the favor two weeks later by posting a 41-10 win in an AFC wild-card game at the RCA Dome. Indianapolis won the last meeting of the two teams in Denver, taking a 23-20 overtime victory on November 24, 2002. PK Mike Vanderjagt booted a 54-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to tie the game and then hit a 51-yarder 5:38 into overtime with the game-winner.
2004 RANKINGS: Colts: offense 1st (11th rush, 1st pass); defense 28th (20th rush, 31st pass). Broncos: offense 5th (5th rush, 8th pass); defense 4th (6th rush, 7th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Colts coach Tony Dungy said he wants to get to 13 victories and won't mail it in just because his team has nothing to gain or lose in the standings. Regardless, don't expect the Colts' starters on either side of the ball to play all four quarters. But as long as QB Peyton Manning is in the game, he will attack Denver's secondary, which lacks depth due to injuries. The Broncos hope DE Trevor Pryce can play for the first time since the season opener and help increase their porous pass rush. As usual, one of the biggest factors for the Broncos is QB Jake Plummer's ability to avoid turnovers. Denver will utilize the ground game early and often. If the Broncos can build a lead against a Colts team simply trying to get out of the game healthy, Plummer won't be put into situations in which he can cost his team the game.
FAST FACTS: Colts: Manning has a passer rating of 121.4. The NFL record for a single season is Steve Young's 112.8 with San Francisco in 1994. ... WR Marvin Harrison has six of the franchise's 12 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Broncos: WR Rod Smith has 24 receptions for 306 yards in the past four games. ... WR Ashley Lelie has had at least one 30-yard reception in 13 of 15 games.
PREDICTION: Broncos 28-24
--OG Rick DeMulling did not practice Thursday and is not expected to play at Denver. DeMulling has been recovering from bruised rib cartilage. Rookie OG Ryan Lilja will most likely start in his place.
--DE Robert Mathis was held out of Thursday's practice as a precaution but will play Sunday. Mathis has been bothered by sore groin for the last month or so.
--LB Rob Morris has been cleared to play after experiencing his second concussion in two weeks during the Chargers game. Morris, however, will most likely be sidelined for Denver as a precaution.
--LB Gary Brackett, who missed the San Diego game with a quadriceps injury, is expected to start if Morris can't play.
--TE Marcus Pollard continues to nurse a sprained right ankle. Pollard has not practiced since he first incurred the injury against Baltimore two weeks ago. TE Dallas Clark would start if Pollard doesn't play.
--FS Idrees Bashir will not play against the Broncos. Bashir has been rehabbing a strained hamstring.
--FS Bob Sanders has practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders or FS Anthony Floyd will get the start at Denver. If Sanders is able to start, it would be for only 10-12 plays.
--CB Nick Harper has seen limited practice this week with a sore back. Harper, who has been bothered by back spasms, will be a game-time decision.
--CB Joseph Jefferson was held out of Thursday's practice in order to rest a sore right knee. Jefferson may be held out of the Denver game.
--LB Gilbert Gardner has not practiced all week due to a shoulder injury that he incurred against San Diego. He is not expected to play against the Broncos.
--DE Trevor Pryce said he practiced with the Broncos' first-team defense on Thursday. However, Pryce still says he'll be limited to 15 plays against the Colts and will only play during pass-rushing situations.
--FB Kyle Johnson was limited in practice Thursday. The Broncos are hoping Johnson, who has a sprained ankle, will be able to play but it looks like tight end Patrick Hape might see extended time at fullback on Sunday.
--QB Jake Plummer could set three single-season records for the Broncos on Sunday. Plummer needs 188 passing yards to break John Elway's single-season record of 4,030 set in 1993, three touchdowns to break Elway's record of 27 set in 1997 and Plummer could become the only quarterback in team history to take every snap in a season.
--S John Lynch has missed one game this season, but the Broncos' starting defensive backfield has been remarkably healthy. Safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Kelly Herndon have started every game this season.
--RB Reuben Droughns will be a key part of Denver's game plan on Sunday. The Broncos want to keep the Colts' offense off the field as long as their starters are still in the game, and Droughns can help them do that by pounding Indianapolis' defense. Droughns looked sharp last week against Tennessee.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Considering the amount of negative attention that the Indianapolis Colts defense has received over the last couple of seasons, it's interesting to note that the Colts rank among the league leaders in quarterback sacks and takeaways.
Thanks in large measure to an improved pass rush, Indianapolis has accounted for 44 sacks and 36 takeaways (19 interceptions and 17 fumbles recovered) through the first 15 games of the 2004 season.
"We're not doing a whole lot different, scheme-wise, than what we did earlier in the year," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy pointed out recently. "But what we have done is to try and simplify some things. We're not running as many blitz packages as we did earlier in the year.
"Instead of coming out and trying to stop specific things that an opposing team does, we're just trying to play the defense that way that it's designed. And we're doing a better job of getting after the quarterback."
Ever since a 45-35 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 8, in which the Colts were torched for 590 yards and six touchdowns, a period of self-examination by the team's defensive players and coaches have resulted in a steady climb up the league's defensive rankings.
Indianapolis, ranked 29th in scoring defense after the Kansas City game, has now moved up to 14th. In terms of yardage given up between the 20-yard lines, the Colts still struggle (28th in total defense, 20th in rushing defense and 28th in pass defense).
But once opposing offenses get into the red zone (inside the 20-yard line), that changes. The team is ranked among the league's best in red zone defensive play, giving up points only 40 percent of the time.
"That's the name of the game," said Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor, who has become the unofficial captain and leader of the defensive unit. "There are statistics and then there are statistics. We're doing a better job of keeping teams out of the end zone. If they don't score touchdowns, it's tough for them to win. And that's what we've been doing over the last month or so."
Broncos: Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams said his goal after being drafted in the first round of last April's NFL Draft was to just make sure he was a contributor as a rookie.
But with one game remaining in the regular season, Williams might be the favorite to win the NFL's defensive rookie of the year award.
Williams leads Denver with 109 tackles and will probably become the second rookie in Broncos history to lead the team in tackles. He had 10 tackles and an interception last week at Tennessee, which earned him AFC defensive player of the week honors.
Williams wasn't shy when he was asked about the rookie of the year award.
"I would love to get it," Williams said. "At the beginning of the season it was private, I kept it to myself, it was a personal goal. I wouldn't do anything outside the team to get it. I'll do it within the scheme. If it happens, I'd be grateful."
Williams' main competition for the award could be his former college teammate at Miami, Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Williams said that the competition between the two for the award has been friendly.
"We talk every week," Williams said. "We text (message) each other stats: 'I did this, I did that.' I would love for either one of us to get it. But I would love to have it."
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