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NFL Preview - Dallas (3-8) at Indianapolis (6-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Prior to the start of this NFL season, this Sunday's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts was regarded as a potential preview of Super Bowl XLV. But as this interconference clash between 2009 postseason participants from Lucas Oil Stadium approaches, it's entirely possible that both teams will be left out in the cold when the playoffs get underway.
The Cowboys have already all but sealed their fate with a dismal 1-7 start that triggered the ousting of head coach Wade Phillips, but it's the reigning AFC champion Colts that will entering this Week 13 showdown seeking to end a current dry spell.
Indianapolis comes in having lost three of its last four games to fall into a first-place tie with Jacksonville in a tightly-bunched AFC South, a division the Colts have captured in six of the last seven campaigns. At 6-5, the team has ensured that an incredible string of seven consecutive regular seasons with 12 or more victories will end, and its streak of eight straight years of advancing to the playoffs is in jeopardy as well.
The Colts' current struggles have coincided with a rash of injuries and an uncharacteristically rough patch from star quarterback Peyton Manning. The four-time league MVP has been intercepted seven times over the past two weeks, the highest amount in back-to-back games of his illustrious 13-year career.
Manning threw four picks, two of which were run back for touchdowns, in a 36-14 loss to red-hot San Diego last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts' most lopsided home defeat since the organization took the legendary signal- caller with the first overall pick of the 1998 draft. One week prior, his third interception of the day killed a potential scoring drive in the final minute of play as Indianapolis dropped a 31-28 decision at New England.
It hasn't helped Manning's cause that he's had to take the field without some of his top weapons, with tight end Dallas Clark (wrist), running back Joseph Addai (neck) and slot receiver Austin Collie (concussion) all having missed significant time with injuries. Clark has already been placed on season-ending injured reserve, and it's uncertain whether the other two will be cleared to return to action on Sunday.
A similar scenario exists regarding the Colts' defense, with the status of middle linebacker Gary Brackett (turf toe) and weakside starter Clint Session (elbow) also both in question.
Indianapolis may need all hands on deck in order to take down the resurgent Cowboys, who came through with wins over the New York Giants and Detroit in their first two games under interim sideline boss Jason Garrett and nearly pulled off a third in their Thanksgiving Day tilt with New Orleans.
Dallas fought back from an early 17-0 deficit against the high-powered Saints to grab a four-point advantage with under 3 1/2 minutes to go after scoring three second-half touchdowns. However, wide receiver Roy Williams was stripped of the football on a game-changing tackle by New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins deep in enemy territory to give the Saints renewed life, and the defending Super Bowl champs cashed in with a Drew Brees scoring pass with 1:55 left that dealt the Cowboys a stinging 30-27 setback.
The Colts will be attempting to avoid consecutive home losses for the first time since dropping decisions to Chicago and Jacksonville during Weeks 1 and 3 of the 2008 season. Including the playoffs, Indianapolis is an outstanding 13-2 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Jim Caldwell's two-year tenure as head coach.
The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with the Colts, 8-5, including a 21-14 home upset of a then-undefeated (9-0) Indianapolis team when the clubs last met in 2006. The Colts won the three previous meetings, including a 20-3 rout when the clubs last in Indy, in 2002. Dallas is 0-2 in Indianapolis since last winning there in 1993.
The most memorable game between the franchises was Super Bowl V, a 16-13 win for the the-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V from Miami.
Both Garrett and Caldwell will be meeting one another, as well as their counterpart's respective franchises, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Garrett's promotion from offensive coordinator has triggered a rebirth from grizzled veteran quarterback Jon Kitna (1536 passing yards, 10 TD, 8 INT), with the 38-year-old journeyman having completed a sharp 69 percent of his throws and averaging 262.3 passing yards in the three games that followed the change in leadership. Kitna also delivered back-to-back three-touchdown outings in the recent wins over the Giants and Lions and has done an overall solid job directing an offense that's put up an average of 276.4 yards per week (5th overall) through the air this season. He hasn't done it alone, as the Cowboys boast an excellent collection of pass-catchers headlined by big- play wide receiver Miles Austin (52 receptions, 757 yards, 5 TD), one of the league's most dangerous performers after the catch. Rookie sensation Dez Bryant (44 receptions, 6 TD) has produced his share of game-changing moments as well during his debut season, and while he hasn't lived up to his advance billing and hefty contract, Williams (32 receptions, 5 TD) still rates as one of the better No. 3 receivers you'll find. Tight end Jason Witten (60 receptions, 6 TD), who leads all NFL players at his position in catches, must be accounted for as well in Dallas' diverse pass attack. The Cowboys haven't been as proficient running the football, with leading rusher Felix Jones (448 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 1 TD) averaging an ordinary four yards per carry, and probably won't have backfield mate Marion Barber (313 rushing yards, 3 TD, 11 receptions) available this week after he strained his calf against the Saints. Seldom-used reserve Tashard Choice (38 rushing yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions) is a more than capable replacement, however.
The Cowboys may attain greater success out of the ground game this week, as the Colts have permitted a league-worst 4.9 yards per run attempt and rank an unwanted 29th in the NFL in rushing defense (136.0 ypg). The injuries to Brackett (42 tackles) and Session (38 tackles, 1 sack), who've sat out the last three and four games, respectively, have compounded the problem, and difference-making strong safety Bob Sanders hasn't played since the season opener because of a torn biceps. If the first two can't get back on the field again this week, rookies Pat Angerer (61 tackles, 1 sack) and Kavell Conner (26 tackles) will again be thrown into the fire. The pass coverage has been better, giving up few long gains, but a shoulder injury that top cornerback Kelvin Hayden (61 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) sustained against San Diego is a cause for concern. Indianapolis' defensive strength is its ability to pressure the quarterback, as the edge-rushing tandem of ends Dwight Freeney (20 tackles, 7 sacks) and Robert Mathis (41 tackles, 7.5 sacks) is among the best in the game.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Even though Manning (3344 passing yards, 22 TD, 11 INT) certainly hasn't been at his best lately, don't expect the Colts to deviate much from their throw- first mantra because of his rare slump. Indianapolis has remained on top of the NFL in passing yards (297.7 ypg) and possesses plenty of quality skill players in spite of the injuries, and there seems to be a decent chance of Collie (50 receptions, 6 TD) returning to the lineup on Sunday. Manning still has his favorite target on hand in All-Pro wideout Reggie Wayne (76 receptions, 907 yards, 4 TD), the AFC's leader in catches, as well as fleet- footed counterpart Pierre Garcon (38 receptions, 1 TD), and Jacob Tamme (38 receptions, 3 TD) has been extremely productive in filling in for the ailing Clark at midseason. Having Addai out of commission for more than a month has created a revolving-door situation at running back, with 2009 first-round choice Donald Brown (289 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions) making a sporadic impact as the primary ball-carrier, but hard-nosed reserve Mike Hart (177 rushing yards, 1 TD) had done some good things before spraining an ankle that's caused him to sit out four straight games. The ex-University of Michigan standout is now healthy and could provide a lift to an offense that's 29th in the league in rushing yards (82.6 ypg) and managed a mere 24 in last week's loss.
Manning may find the perfect cure for his woes in a Dallas secondary that's often been futile in its attempts to stop opposing quarterbacks this season. The Cowboys are a woeful 29th overall in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 23 touchdowns via the air on the year, the second-highest amount in the league. The team will try to combat Indy's potent passing assault by unleashing feared pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (44 tackles, 9.5 sacks) upon Manning, but the playmaking outside linebacker will need assistance from players such as sidekick Anthony Spencer (42 tackles, 3 sacks) and All-Pro nose tackle Jay Ratliff (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks) in order to protect the shaky backfield and prevent a repeat of last week, when Brees piled up 352 passing yards and easily marched the Saints downfield for the deciding score. With Ratliff crating havoc in the middle and a pair of accomplished veteran inside linebackers in place in Keith Brooking (79 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Bradie James (85 tackles), Dallas shouldn't encounter too much trouble containing the Colts' mediocre run game.
It would be unwise for Manning owners to overreact to a couple of bad games, as Sunday's matchup could very well be a golden opportunity for the usually- elite quarterback to amass some very big numbers. All Indianapolis receivers, notably Wayne, Garcon and Tamme, are in play here as well, but hold off on using Collie for now until he shows he's over his lingering concussion issues. Addai's probably going to miss another week, but neither Brown nor Hart are particularly strong options at running back. There are a few recommended choices on the Dallas side as well, with Austin, Witten and Bryant all more than worthy of starting consideration and Jones getting a slight boost in value from the anticipated absence of Barber. As for the kickers, Indianapolis' Adam Vinatieri is a solid selection but the Cowboys' David Buehler has been very much hit-or-miss on his field goal attempts, and stay away from either defense due to both teams' obvious high-scoring capabilities.
If judged solely on their performances over the past three weeks, the Cowboys would seem to be the better bet to throw your support towards, and there's no question they're capable of coming out of this game with a win if the Colts play down to their recent level once again. It's still hard to ignore the track record of both Manning and his team, however, especially when it's playing at home and in a need-to-win mode with the division race so tight. Look for the Cowboys to put forth another good effort under Garrett's leadership, and for Manning to look more like his old self and skillfully pick apart a very vulnerable Dallas defense to get Indianapolis back on track.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 31, Cowboys 27
12/02 18:35:58 ET