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Colts' running game awakens during playoff push

INDIANAPOLIS -- The once-struggling Colts suddenly are among the hottest teams in the league now that their running game has offered Peyton Manning a helping hand.

Manning went through one of the worst slumps of his career, throwing 11 interceptions while his running game disappeared during a three-game losing streak that nearly took the Colts out of the playoff race. Now Indianapolis has won three in a row, Manning looks like a four-time MVP and the Colts can clinch the AFC South title with a win Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

The Colts have averaged 144 yards rushing per game and 4.6 yards per carry in wins over Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland. Manning, under less pressure, has thrown seven touchdown passes with just two interceptions during that stretch.

The Colts passed twice for every rushing attempt in their first 12 games, but have had a near 50-50 split since. As a result, Indy is averaging 32 points during its winning streak, among the highest totals in the league.

Coach Jim Caldwell attributes much of the success to the offensive line's development.

"We are not doing anything different from a schematic standpoint, but I do think we have gotten better week in and week out, just in terms of fundamentals and techniques," he said. "I think we are doing a better job just controlling the line of scrimmage."

The offensive line is one of the few areas of the team that has not been hit hard by injuries. Center Jeff Saturday and right tackle Ryan Diem have started all 15 games, left tackle Charlie Johnson has started 13 of 15 games, left guard Kyle DeVan has started 10 consecutive and right guard Mike Pollak has started 12 of 15.

"I think the guys up front are communicating very well," Caldwell said. "They have finally gotten to the point where you have roughly the same group that has played together for a fairly decent length of time, and so I think you are starting to see some of the benefits of that."

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The Colts have had a different rushing leader in each game during their win streak. Javarris James was the top rusher against Tennessee, Donald Brown led the way with a career-best 129 yards against Jacksonville and Dominic Rhodes, a recent pickup from the United Football League, ran for 98 against the Raiders.

Rhodes, who has played for the Colts twice before, ran for 113 yards in Indy's win over the Bears in the 2007 Super Bowl. He has rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in his career, mostly as a Colt. He ran for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns for Indy as a rookie in 2001.

"He knows the system, and that makes it even better," Caldwell said. "He did not have to feel his way to be a contributor. He has helped us quite a bit."

Joseph Addai ran for 45 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries after missing eight games with a nerve injury in his left shoulder.

"You go into a game, certainly when you have been inactive as long as Joe has been, you have some questions as to, 'OK, how well will I handle this hit?' Because we cannot emulate the hits he will take in a ballgame in practice," Caldwell said. "There is some uncertainty there. I think after he got in there and took a couple of hits and made a couple of runs, he felt really good about his progress, and he could handle the rigors of the game once again."

Caldwell said despite Rhodes' emergence, Brown still would get work. He also said Mike Hart, who missed the Oakland game due to an ankle injury, could return against Tennessee.

"We hope that we will be able to utilize all of them at some point and time," Caldwell said. "So I think we can get a pretty good mix. It is great to have those guys available to us."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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