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NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-3) at Indianapolis (0-8)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Does one man make a difference on how a team performs?
It seems that way with quarterback Peyton Manning and the winless Indianapolis Colts, who will try once again for their first win of the season Sunday versus the visiting Atlanta Falcons at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Manning hasn't played a down this season due to his ongoing neck issues and will most likely not play at all in 2011 despite remaining on the active roster. In his absence, the Colts have lost eight consecutive games to start the year and are virtually certain to have a streak of nine straight playoff appearances end.
The four-time MVP is expected to occupy a roster spot for the remainder of this tumultuous campaign and could make a cameo appearance sometime in the latter weeks of the season. Manning hasn't been cleared to practice yet, however, and Colts vice chairman Bill Polian was recently asked about one of the game's most respected players making a comeback in 2011 rather than waiting for next season.
"Well, I think that's generally true. The only caveat would be I'm not sure we would play him in ballgames," Polian said of Manning. "For example, if our offensive line was as beaten up at the end of the season as it is now, I'm not sure we'd run the risk of playing him. Not to denigrate [substitute quarterback] Curtis [Painter] in any way, but a guy coming off that long of a layoff in front of a non-experienced line would be a little difficult."
It couldn't get any worse, however, for the Colts, one of the NFL's two remaining winless teams along with Miami. For now, Painter will remain the starter until told otherwise as the Colts are prepare for a rare showdown with the Falcons at home after playing their last three games on the road. Indianapolis has scored just 17 points in losses at New Orleans and Tennessee over the last two weeks and suffered a 27-10 setback to the Titans last Sunday.
Painter passed for 250 yards with a pair of interceptions against the Titans, one week after going 9-for-17 for 67 yards and a pick in a 62-7 romp at the hands of the Saints.
Indianapolis has struggled mightily without its offensive captain in Manning and is 30th in total offense (294.9 ypg) and scoring (15.1 ppg). The team is hoping a return to Lucas Oil Stadium to play in front of the home crowd will lift some of the bewildered spirits.
"It's always nice to have your home crowd, especially when you're struggling offensively," said veteran center Jeff Saturday. "We like to get our crowd involved, get them excited, and you can play off that momentum and feed off of it. So it will be good to be back at Lucas Oil, and I look forward to seeing some smiling faces and some good fans."
The Colts will also host Jacksonville before their bye week.
Atlanta enjoyed its week off and will visit the Colts before returning to the Peach State for three consecutive contests. It headed to the bye riding a season-best two-game winning streak and a 4-3 record -- good enough for a second-place tie with Tampa Bay in the NFC South standings.
The Falcons took care of Carolina and Detroit before a one-week layoff and will get a healthy Matt Ryan back under center. The quarterback missed a few plays in the team's 23-16 win over Lions with what appeared to be an ankle and knee issue after left tackle Will Svitek unintentionally stepped on Ryan's foot in the pocket.
"Quarterbacks get a lot of notoriety and people's eyes are always on you, so they kind of see those things a little bit more so than some other positions," Ryan said of his injury. "But that's par for the course in our locker room. We've got a lot of guys who week in and week out, grind through a lot of different things and show up on the field. I'm just trying to do like everyone else."
It's difficult to be just like everyone else when you're the quarterback and face of the franchise, however, and the allure of Ryan going up against Manning has worn off now that the latter has been relegated to coaching duties on the sidelines.
Ryan kept his focus on the team and noted how they're still things to improve on and stay consistent with, such as winning football games. Only a game behind the Saints in the division standings, Atlanta can't let one slip away this week.
Like all teams around the league, the Falcons have been hampered with injuries this season. It was recently learned that left offensive tackle Sam Baker will miss three-to-four weeks with a balky back and Svitek, who filled in for Baker at Detroit, will take over as the starter. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones has missed back-to-back games with a hamstring issue and tight end Tony Gonzalez missed some practice time this week with a back issue. Both offensive weapons are expected to be ready for Sunday's game, however, and Falcons leading receiver Roddy White can't wait to see Jones get back on the field.
"We've missed him and his big play ability and the things he brings to the table," White said. "I was happy to see him out there on Monday running routes. He even stayed after practice and we got some work in catching balls. He'll be ready to fly on Sunday and we'll be ready to go."
Sunday's game will be just the seventh matchup between the two teams since the Colts re-located to Indianapolis from Baltimore in 1984.
The Colts own a commanding 13-1 lead in their all-time series with the Falcons, with Atlanta's lone win in the set a 28-21 triumph at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 6, 1998. Indianapolis has defeated the Falcons three straight times since, following up home victories in both 2001 and 2003 with a 31-13 decision in Atlanta during the 2007 campaign. The Falcons are 0-6 all-time against the Colts on the road, with three of those setbacks taking place in Indianapolis.
Both Atlanta's Mike Smith and Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell will be opposing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Ryan (1,683 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) had nine interceptions in 16 games a year ago, but is one pick away from matching that mark this season. He has thrown a touchdown pass in six straight games since not having one in a Week 1 loss at Chicago, however, though his 63.1 passer rating against Detroit was his second-lowest of the season and worst since a 55.1 showing in a loss to Green Bay on Oct. 9. The former Boston College college standout has been sacked 18 times already this season for a Falcons team struggling in yards per play (21st overall), net yards passing per play (24th) and scoring average (17th). Ryan has played well against the AFC in his career, having gone 9-3 with 18 touchdown passes to three interceptions for a 96.0 quarterback rating. The Falcons are 17-0 when Ryan has a rating of 100 or better, and he should have a chance to get to that mark on Sunday. Atlanta is also 25-8 under Smith in games played indoors, and each of its last nine games will be played inside a dome. Gonzalez (35 receptions, 4 TD) leads the team in receiving scores and is second on the NFL's all-time list with 1,104 receptions. White (39 receptions, 3 TD) is hoping the return of Jones will open the offense, while running back Michael Turner (621 rushing yards, 6 TD) will have Jason Snelling as his new fullback after the team placed Ovie Mughelli (knee) on injured reserve during the bye. Turner has rushed for 100-plus yards in two straight games.
The Colts have been brutal on defense this season save for the efforts of middle linebacker and leading tackler Pat Angerer (90 tackles) and defensive ends Dwight Freeney (12 tackles, 5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (14 tackles, 4 sacks). Angerer posted 10 tackles against the Titans and has recorded that many on four occasions this season. Freeney is a six-time Pro Bowl selection and the franchise's all-time leader in sacks, but hasn't had one since a loss to Kansas City on Oct. 9 for the Colts, who are 31st in total defense (402.9 yards per game), 32nd in scoring defense (31.5 points per game) and tied for 30th with 12 sacks. Indianapolis is also 31st against the run and will have a tough time stopping Turner after Javon Ringer and Chris Johnson combined for 94 yards in last week's win for the Titans. Mathis said the team practices hard, but just can't get over the hump on Sundays. Perhaps a return home can boost the defense's energy and lift Indianapolis to its first win. If the Colts can find a way to slow down the Falcons' run game and force them to pass, they may have a chance. In the secondary, safety Antoine Bethea (64 tackles) is a solid contributor behind two lesser-known cornerbacks in Jacob Lacey (30 tackles) and Jerraud Powers (35 tackles).
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Painter (1,123 passing yards, 5 TD, 4 INT) has been getting extended time under center with Manning out due to neck surgery and hasn't done much to help fans forget about their beloved No. 18. The former Purdue standout is averaging only 168.3 passing yards with a touchdown and four interceptions in his last three games, but had a career-best 79 yards rushing in the loss at Tennessee. Running back Joseph Addai (257 rushing yards, 1 TD) has been bothered by a hamstring injury and did not play against the Titans. He has missed two of the previous three weeks because of the problem and had just eight yards on two carries in the blowout loss at New Orleans. Addai hasn't rushed for more than 86 yards in a game this season, but owns 12 rushing touchdowns in 17 career games against the NFC. Rookie Delone Carter (305 rushing yards, 2 TD) has handled the load in Addai's absence and leads the Colts in rushing yards and carries (74). He was held to 46 yards on nine carries against Tennessee, one game after ripping off a career-best 89 yards and a touchdown on 10 touches in the loss to New Orleans. Fellow running back Donald Brown (153 rushing yards, 2 TD) is still relevant in Indy, and even more so now that Addai is nicked up. Indianapolis' offensive line has been plagued by injuries this season, but rookie tackle Anthony Castonzo returned to practice after missing several games with an ankle injury and should play Sunday.
Atlanta must not take the Colts lightly and hope veteran defensive end John Abraham (12 tackles, 3 sacks) can muster some pressure up front. Abraham had a sack his last time out, ending a string of four straight games without getting to the quarterback, and owns at least one in two of three career meetings with Indianapolis. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (64 tackles) and Sean Weatherspoon (60 tackles, 2 sacks), who lead the Falcons in tackles, also have to be wary of Carter or Brown even if Addai is unable to go due to injury. Safety Thomas DeCoud (37 tackles) is tops on Atlanta with three interceptions, while cornerback Kelvin Hayden (11 tackles, 1 INT) spent the first six years of his career with Indianapolis and won a Super Bowl with the team. He is enjoying a strong first season as a nickel defender with the Falcons and will have a chance to go against some former teammates this week. The Falcons are solid against the run this season, allowing 98.4 yards per game, and shouldn't have a problem slowing down the Colts' ground attack. Atlanta is not that impressive against the pass, however, as it is just 23rd in that category (265.6 ypg). The Falcons have forced at least one turnover in each of the last 26 games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Colts wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark combined for 18 receptions last week in defeat and will be counted on to help out the struggling Painter once again on Sunday. It's difficult to imagine a team losing when three different players have 60 or more receiving yards, but the Colts found a way and hope history doesn't repeat itself Sunday.
Winning at home for the Colts used to be as common as someone embarrassing themselves on Facebook or Twitter. Now they are 0-3 as the host this season after going 17-5 at Lucas Oil Stadium from 2008-2010, and it appears loss No. 4 at home is on the horizon unless they can reassert their dominance there.
Under Smith, the Falcons are 2-1 following a bye week and went 4-0 in November last season en route to earning the NFC's top seed. Smith must not let the time off be a factor for his team against a hungry and winless Colts squad, as Atlanta had been playing well before the break.
It will be the Michael Turner show on Sunday, as the bowling ball-type running back will rush for more than 100 yards in a game for the fifth time this season. Turner has to be foaming at the mouth for this chance to run against a banged-up Colts' defense and is on pace for another 1,300-yard season. Though Atlanta is tops in the NFL with a league-leading five turnovers inside the red zone, it shouldn't have to worry about adding to that total since Indianapolis has experienced trouble moving the chains this season. The Falcons haven't had that problem, converting 45.7 percent of their third downs, which ranks sixth in the NFL and third in the NFC.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 30, Colts 17
11/03 16:05:55 ET