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Caldwell facing big test without Manning

By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell is learning that it is tough to win without Peyton Manning.

Manning had always had Caldwell's back since he took over as head coach in 2009 following Tony Dungy's retirement. Caldwell inherited one of the game's best offenses and didn't let the unit slip, riding Manning to a Super Bowl appearance following the '09 season in his NFL head coaching debut.

He showed last year that the success wasn't just piggybacked from Dungy's roster either. Indianapolis won the AFC South for the second time under Caldwell despite dealing with injury after injury, prompting the battle cry of "Next Man Up" to ring across Colts nation.

Again, Caldwell had Manning. Now without the MVP quarterback, the Colts are 0-3 for the first time since Manning's rookie year of 1998.

"It's still one of those things where we've got a lot of time left at this point in time to get some things done," Caldwell said on Monday. "We have to keep improving and I think we've been improving a little bit, little by little, but we have to make another jump to get over the hump where we can get a victory and then try to string a few together."

Now without the MVP quarterback, the Colts are 0-3 for the first time since Peyton Manning's rookie year of 1998.
The Colts get an extra day of preparation this week due to a Monday night meeting with Tampa Bay, and they'll need it to clear up their quarterback situation.

What they do know is that owner Jim Irsay is hoping Manning, who has had three procedures on his neck in 19 months, might be back by December, but logic says the Pro Bowl staple won't play this year.

Not sure that Curtis Painter could handle the load, Indy lured Kerry Collins out of retirement to take the wheel before the season started, but he has posted just a 65.9 quarterback rating with a pair of touchdown passes, one interception and three lost fumbles through three games. Additionally, Collins did not play in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's loss to Pittsburgh because of a possible concussion.

"He's still being evaluated, but he had those kinds of symptoms," Caldwell said on Monday. "The doctors did what they're supposed to do in that regard, which is to remove him from the ball game and continue to evaluate him. He's still in that process right now."

Painter was stripped shortly after replacing Collins, a turnover Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu returned for a touchdown, but also led an 80-yard scoring drive that tied the game at 20-20 with 2:09 left to play. The Steelers, though, countered with a 38-yard field goal with four ticks left to hand the Colts another loss.

Caldwell praised Painter for coming back and leading the long scoring drive and wouldn't say on Monday if the Colts were planning to bring in another quarterback in case Collins can't play.

"You know, it just depends on the situation and we'll kind of address it as we go," the coach said.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Colts do bring in some fresh bodies at quarterback this week, especially with an extra day and the fact that Painter owns just 39 career pass attempts in the NFL. Indianapolis was already in desperation mode with Collins, however, and finding a quarterback now that can make a real impact will be tough to do.

Next man up? Try all hands on deck.

49ERS VISIT EAGLES AS THE HUNTER?

If anyone thought that this Sunday's matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles would feature a first-place team, many would have picked the Michael Vick-led Birds as the likely division leaders.

Not so, as the Niners bring an NFC West-best 2-1 mark into Lincoln Financial Field looking to win a second straight road game out East.

Rookie running back Kendall Hunter could be in for a bigger role for San Francisco if an ankle injury continues to hinder starter Frank Gore. Hunter had nine carries to Gore's 17, but scored the only touchdown of last Sunday's 13-8 win over Cincinnati on a seven-yard run with 3:59 to go in the game.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday that Hunter is ready for more action if Gore can't play, but that he also thinks his starter will be ready.

"I think Kendall's a good player," he said. "He's the backup tailback, and Frank's status in my mind right now, Frank is good to go. So we'll play him. We'll scheme and prepare for this game, Frank along with the rest of the players on the team."

Given Philadelphia's struggles against the run this year, both Gore and Hunter could get a lot of work this weekend.

So too should tight end Vernon Davis, who had only seven catches through the first two games before notching eight receptions and 114 yards in Cincinnati.

"I thought Vernon performed very well," Harbaugh said. "[He] had some more opportunities, balls coming his way. Like I said last week, Vernon's always involved in the offense. [He's a] huge part of the offense."

With Vick's status uncertain for this game, the 49ers have the chance to pull off another big road win and keep themselves in the driver's seat early on the NFC West as the club hunts for its first playoff berth since 2002.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Michael Rushton at mrushton@sportsnetwork.com.

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