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COLTS CLINCH AFC EAST BEHIND BENNETT'S PREACHING AND POUNDING

Having been there, Cornelius Bennett knew how to act.

With so much on the line Sunday at the RCA Dome, the veteran of 13 NFL seasons and eight division championships led by word, deed and appreciation in the Indianapolis Colts' 24-21 win over the Washington Redskins.

By word: Disgusted by a mistake-plagued first half that left the Indianapolis Colts trailing Washington, 13-10, Bennett delivered an inspirational halftime speech.

"I told the guys at halftime, 'Let's stop thinking about the AFC East championship. Let's go out and beat the Washington Redskins and the championship will take care of itself,' " he said.

By deed: With the Redskins trailing, 24-21, and threatening at their 46-yard line after recovering an onside kick with 1:24 to play, Bennett helped derail the comeback with a crippling 7-yard sack of quarterback Brad Johnson on first down.

By appreciation: After two pressure-induced incompletions by Johnson enabled the Colts to embrace victory, Bennett found a spot in the end zone and saluted the sellout crowd with an impromptu dance.

"The support we had was unbelievable," Bennett said.

Appropriately, the rest of the Colts followed the lead of their eldest statesman. While Bennett, 34, was addressing the media, quarterback Peyton Manning rounded up his teammates, who were adorned in championship hats and shirts, and led them back onto the field for a victory lap.

"It was a chance for us to thank the fans," Manning said. "They've been a big part of our success all season."

And what a successful season it's been.

The Colts clinched their first AFC East championship since 1987 with their 10th consecutive victory that bumped their record to 12-2. The primary byproduct of the division title: a first-round bye in the playoffs and a home game in the second round (Jan. 15 or 16).

The storybook adventure also is likely to go down as the biggest one-season turnaround in NFL history. With two games to play, the Colts' nine-win improvement -- does anyone remember last year's 3-13 finish? -- ties the all-time pro football record held by the 1929 New York Giants and 1963 Oakland Raiders.

While the Colts were celebrating just their second divisional title since 1977, Bennett was savoring his ninth during a career that has included productive stints with Buffalo and Atlanta. He still is seeking the most elusive of titles -- he's 0-5 in the Super Bowl.

"I tell the guys all the time, all I do is win championships," Bennett said. "I won't say I can't win the Super Bowl.

"I haven't won the Super Bowl yet, but I can damn sure get you there."

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