INDIANAPOLIS — Two seasons ago, the Indianapolis Colts were the scrubs of the NFL, but now they have the blueprint of a Super Bowl team.
The Colts have a no-nonsense coach in Jim Mora, who commands discipline from his players.
They have three talented offensive players in quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
They also have a opportunistic defense that plays better in front of the team's noisy fans at the RCA Dome.
And, after winning their ninth consecutive game with a 20-15 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday before 56,975, the Colts control their destiny as they chase the franchise's first division title since 1987.
Indianapolis dominated throughout, but had to overcome a late fumble by Manning with a defensive stand to defeat the Patriots for the first time in eight games.
"It was a real nail-biter but good teams do what they have to do to win big games like this," said Harrison, who had six catches for 118 yards, the seventh time this season he has had at least 100 yards receiving.
Indianapolis (11-2) has clinched a playoff berth, but the way the Colts are playing, their sights are much higher.
They do not care about a 3-13 record in Mora's first season or a 3-13 mark under then-coach Lindy Infante in 1997. The Colts know they have a good team and they're not discounting a trip to the Super Bowl.
"Way back in training camp, I told [teammate] Jason Belser about this team," said linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who played in five Super Bowls with Buffalo and Atlanta and joined the Colts this season.
"I was only practicing once a day because of an injury so I had a chance to stand back and watch the guys practice. I told Jason then we had a chance to be a special football team. From my knowledge of football and being around, I just saw how these young guys were working and busting their butts in practice. We just came together real strong. It's just unbelievable."
The Colts, who last lost Oct. 10 by three points to Miami, started off against New England like a championship team. They kicked off and forced the Patriots to punt after one first down.
Indianapolis needed only six plays to drive 72 yards to take a 7-0 lead. Manning completed a 52-yard pass to Harrison on the Colts' first play.
Underrated tight end Marcus Pollard capped off Indianapolis' drive with a five-yard touchdown reception from Manning. It marked the 26th consecutive game that the second-year quarterback has completed a touchdown pass, the fifth longest streak in NFL history.
"You know they run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, but they came out and killed us with play-action early," New England linebacker Ted Johnson said. "If we could have kept them out of the end zone on their first drive, that would have been big for us."
New England (7-6) responded with a lengthy drive but had to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri to cut the Colt lead to 7-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The Patriots threatened to take the lead in the second quarter but a time-consuming drive stalled and they had to settle for another 28-yard field goal from Vinatieri.
Indianapolis needed less than three minutes to drive 60 yards to take a 14-6 halftime lead. The Colts again used James, who had only nine yards in six carries in the first half, as a decoy for big plays. Harrison caught two passes for 49 yards and James finished the drive by scoring on a two-yard shovel pass from Manning.
The Colts extended their lead to 17-6 with a 28-yard field goal from Mike Vanderjagt to open the second half. This time, James' impact on the drive came from running the ball 24 yards in three carries. Just a sign of things to come.
"We just broke down on our base stuff," New England Coach Pete Carroll said. "We had [James]. There was no secret to it. We over-pursued a couple of times on plays."
James, who finished with 101 yards in 20 carries, continued to punish the Patriot defense and his rushing helped Indianapolis to another field goal, a 31-yarder by Vanderjagt, to push the lead to 20-6.
New England appeared to have scored a touchdown late in the third quarter on a three-yard reception by former Dorsey High standout Lamont Warren, but the play was nullified because of an illegal motion penalty, due in part from crowd noise. The Patriots again settled for a 28-yard field goal from Vinatieri.
"That's one of the advantages you get when you play at home and you have supporting fans like we do," Mora said. "But that was a touchdown that was called back because their guy had a false start due to tremendous crowd noise and they had to kick a field goal."
The Patriots got a touchdown in the fourth quarter when Shawn Jefferson caught a 10-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe with 3:07 remaining.