INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Three weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts found themselves staring at a worst-case scenario. They'd lost three straight and were on the verge of playoff elimination. They had the toughest schedule remaining in the AFC East.
And most everyone believed the Colts needed a minor miracle to save their playoff hopes.
Everyone, that is, but the Colts.
Culpepper's status still uncertain
EDEN PRAIRIE (AP) -- Daunte Culpepper tested out braces for his sprained right ankle and threw briefly while wearing a walking boot during the Minnesota Vikings' practice Friday.
There was no further indication whether Culpepper will be able to play Sunday at Indianapolis or whether backup Bubby Brister will start at quarterback for the Vikings. Brister took the majority of snaps during practice.
Culpepper has shown modest improvement over the past few days, but team officials indicated rest is usually the best medicine for his injury.
"It's all right," Culpepper said. "I'm going to try to do a little more tomorrow and see how it feels. It felt a little better."
Culpepper tested out three different styles of braces that could be worn in his football shoes.
"The Miami loss and the Jets loss were so disappointing, the team was really down after that," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "But we weren't mathematically out of it, so we played it like it was three one-game seasons, with each one being elimination."
The Colts (9-6) reacted like the defending division champions that they are. They beat Buffalo, won at Miami, and with a win at home Sunday against Minnesota (11-4), what once seemed improbable could become stark reality: Indianapolis qualifying for the playoffs, perhaps even celebrating a division title.
"I think the longer you play, the more you're going to learn about football and how things go," Manning said. "Last season, I think, was a very unusual situation where we won 11 in a row and really didn't face much adversity.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but I know we do have a chance."
Their chances seem to be increasingly better, too.
Three weeks ago, this would have looked like a mismatch between the Indianapolis secondary and the Minnesota receivers.
Now, though, the Colts face one of the NFL's most potent offenses, which boasts six Pro Bowl players.
In the past two weeks, the Colts have forced six turnovers, produced 13 sacks and yielded an average of 283 yards.
"Their skill position players are the best in the league, probably," Colts defensive tackle Ellis Johnson said. "They've got the ability to go the distance on any play."
But the Vikings haven't been playing that way in recent weeks.
Their ground game has virtually dried up, and their defense has allowed 73 points and a 75.7 completion percentage in successive losses.
Even worse is the injury situation.
Running back Robert Smith hurt his knee last week and Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper may not play because of a sprained ankle. Culpepper is listed as questionable and wore a cast on the ankle Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. If he can't go, Bubby Brister will.
"Daunte is a very strong guy," coach Dennis Green said. "He's thick, he's got thick ankles, thick legs and thick arms. He's only been injured once before and he played. He's never not played.
"But I don't want him playing if he's not 100 percent."
The reason is clear: Minnesota wants Culpepper ready for the playoffs.
Still, the Colts are taking no chances.
"We're planning to see Culpepper," coach Jim Mora said. "I'm expecting everyone will play. We will not change our game plan, we're preparing for Culpepper."
Minnesota also has plenty at stake Sunday.
A Vikings victory or a Tampa Bay loss gives Minnesota the NFC Central title -- and, possibly, a first-round bye. A loss, however, could knock down Minnesota to the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs.
And the Colts need not only a victory but either Miami to lose at New England or the New York Jets to lose at Baltimore to reach the playoffs. If both lose and the Colts win, Indianapolis wins the AFC East.
Strangely, both teams will know exactly what they must do before they step on the field because of the afternoon start.
"There's no doubt this is unusual," Green said. "Everyone should be playing at 1 p.m., but we'll know what we're up against and so will the Colts. So I think we just have to be ready to go out and try to win."
So will the Colts, who have beaten the odds twice already.
"We're going to play our behinds off regardless of what happens in the other games," Johnson said. "We can't worry about the scenarios, we just want to go out there and be 10-6."
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