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Colts about to enter season’s toughest stretch

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Colts never expected this November to be easy, not with road games against the Eagles and Patriots and a visit from the Chargers.

And that was before a rash of injuries. The next two weeks, starting with Sunday's game at New England followed by San Diego, may be more of a survival test.

"They (the Pats) are a good team, arguably playing as well as anybody and it's a tough place to play," Caldwell said Monday. "It's always been a huge rivalry because both teams have been playing well whenever we've met, so there's a lot at stake."

Especially in this wild and wacky season.

Eleven of the 16 AFC teams are within one game of first place, and, strangely, the depleted Colts are the only AFC team with sole possession of a division lead in the conference.

The question: How long can they keep it?

Indianapolis (6-3) opened Sunday's game against Cincinnati without any of its three opening-day starters at linebacker, without safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt, without tight ends Dallas Clark and Brody Eldridge, without receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez and without running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart.

Caldwell was optimistic some of those guys might return for this weekend's tussle with the Patriots.

"I wish I could tell you who they are," Caldwell said, giving his standard Monday answer about injuries. "Guys have been working hard and rehabbing diligently. Hopefully, it will be like last week where we got a couple of guys back, and, hopefully, we'll get a couple of more back this week."

The good news in Indianapolis is that the health concerns may finally be ending.

Last week, team president Bill Polian told his radio show listeners he expects most of the Colts to be back on the field for the Dec. 5 game against Dallas.

But between now and then, the Colts need to survive two key games that could help clear up the AFC playoff picture.

The Patriots (7-2) are tied for the AFC East lead with the New York Jets, and the Chargers (4-5) are suddenly one game behind AFC West co-leaders Oakland and Kansas City.

Not that the Colts are paying attention to other teams given their own issues.

"Every game is about surviving," Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said after Sunday's 23-17 victory earned them a day off Monday. "Every game is going to be tough, no matter who we have out there, if we have the original starter or the new starters. They are going to look at it just like it's the plan old Colts out there, no matter who is out there. They are trying to survive also."

It likely means, however, that the Colts will face their two biggest nemeses short-handed.

New England won six straight over the Colts, including two playoff games, between the 2001 and 2004 seasons. Four of those games were played in Foxborough, Mass. Since then, the Colts have had the upper hand, winning five of the last six including the AFC Championship game following the 2006 season.

San Diego, meanwhile, has won four of the last five against Indy, including back-to-back playoff games after the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

So the Colts know what it will take.

"I've always kind of said, 'Hey, we've got to focus on us and getting us better,'" Peyton Manning said. "I haven't seen the Patriots at all, I haven't studied them at all, but it sounds like they're a typical Patriots team. At the same time, I think we really have to focus on getting the Colts better."

The top priority will be scoring touchdowns.

Twice on Sunday, the Colts settled for short field goals after driving into the red zone. The previous week, they also settled for a 37-yard field goal in a 26-24 loss at Philadelphia.

That's not typical Colts ball, and against a Patriots squad that hung 39 points on the Steelers' vaunted defense, well, Manning and Caldwell know field goals won't cut it this week.

Sure, some will contend Indy's red-zone struggles are a direct result of the missing pieces, but that's not how the Colts see it.

They still have to win these games and put themselves in position to control their own playoff fate during the season's final month _ regardless of who's playing and who's not.

"Anything can happen. Everybody's got a shot," Caldwell said. "I think whoever can get hot and get on a roll can get control of this thing. But the way this thing is going, it could up to Week 14, 15, 16 before everything is solidified."

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