INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Peyton Manning stood at his postgame news conference with a rare smile and an unusual twinkle in his eyes. He had finally won at New England, and for once, Manning wanted to savor the moment.

By Tuesday morning, the celebration ended as the Indianapolis Colts looked ahead to their next game against Houston.

“I love plane rides in the NFL after a win,” Manning said Monday night. “Hopefully we’ll fly slow – a two-hour flight – and then touch the ground and it’s on to Houston.”

For Manning and the Colts (8-0), the expectations following a 40-21 victory over the two-time defending Super Bowl champs pose the biggest threat now.

Indy fans treated the Patriots game as if it was the Super Bowl, and a conveniently timed bye week played into the buildup. Some figured a victory at New England also meant the Colts punched their ticket to Detroit, site of this year’s Super Bowl.

On Tuesday, coach Tony Dungy wasted no time in debunking such thoughts as premature.

“You get all these stats about the last team that won their first eight or nine games or the last unbeaten team going to the Super Bowl,” Dungy said. “It’s like the Indy-New England spiel, it really doesn’t mean anything.”

Nonetheless, Dungy was still peppered with questions about whether the unbeaten Colts could challenge the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect record, especially with a tough stretch ahead – a Nov. 20 date at Cincinnati followed by a Monday night game at home against Pittsburgh. He tactfully avoided the bait.

Rather than looking ahead, reflecting on the best start in franchise history or the victory at New England, Dungy turned the attention back to Houston.

“We have to do what we did last week and that is to focus on the opponent you’re playing and that game,” he said. “What’s happened in the past, what could happen in the future, we have to block all that stuff out. I think we have some guys on this team that will help us do that.”

It starts with Manning.

No matter the circumstances, Manning always seems to find the right words to challenge his teammates, and Monday night proved no exception.

Much as he enjoyed his latest personal milestone, winning at New England for the first time in eight games, Manning’s quick mention of Houston was an indication that everyone needed to move on.

“There always will be something else, like this was not a playoff game,” Manning said. “I am very content to have won this particular game.”

The difference between this season and past seasons is that the Colts no longer must rely on the strength of Manning’s right arm to win games.

They’re winning now with a new attitude, growing confidence, an improved defense and a greater ability to run the ball effectively.

Manning welcomes the change.

“There’s a lot of youth and enthusiasm on the defense and in practices guys are flying around,” Manning said. “I sleep a little better at night knowing Dwight (Freeney) can get a sack any time he wants or Bob Sanders can force a fumble. You think those plays will happen now.”

The toughest part, however, is still ahead.

As the last unbeaten team remaining, Indianapolis hopes to spend the second half of the season proving the first half was no fluke. Some complain that the Colts have played an easy schedule that includes only one team, Jacksonville (5-3), with a winning record but ignore the fact that Indianapolis has played two home games since mid-September.

They also must guard against letdowns, trap games and looking ahead.

Dungy believes his players will ignore the hype and concentrate on beating Houston.

“We’re 8-0 and, obviously, we’re happy with that. We’re looking forward to this week and it’s a short week,” Dungy said. “But when the guys realize how hard it has been to win these eight, and then to do it all over again, that’s tough.”

AP-ES-11-08-05 1819EST


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