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Patriots at Colts >8:15 p.m. (Ch. 7)

A rare bad start has Colts at a loss

By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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INDIANAPOLIS - "You're going down, Manning," a New England bellboy snarls at the visiting quarterback in the World MasterCard ad that will air today. "That's right, I am," agrees Manning. "Fourth floor." But who would have guessed that the Colts would be on the down elevator with him, off to their worst start (3-4) since 1998, when Manning was a rookie?

If the 2006 Super Bowl champions lose to their archrival Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium tonight, as they have in their last three regular-season meetings in Indianapolis, they could well be on the fourth floor of the AFC South and their playoff chances could be in serious jeopardy.

"We're so used to winning and our fans are used to us winning, it's tough to see," said safety Bob Sanders, who should be back in the lineup after missing five games with a high ankle sprain. "But it's something that you have to go through eventually in this league, and everyone goes through it."

Yet it's still a shock for a franchise that has become used to supersonic starts, opening their last three seasons at 13-0, 9-0, and 7-0. Now the Colts have all but conceded the division title to undefeated Tennessee after last Monday's 31-21 road loss to the Titans, which left Indianapolis four games behind with nine to play.

"Right now, we're probably fighting for a wild card unless Tennessee just blows up themselves," acknowledged center Jeff Saturday, whose teammates have won five straight division crowns and have missed the playoffs only once since 1998.

At this point, the Colts happily would settle for any postseason berth.

"It's not a desperate situation," said coach Tony Dungy, who had three consecutive teams at Tampa Bay that started 3-4 and made the playoffs. "I showed the team where we are, right in the hunt of the AFC.

"There are probably 12 or 13 teams right now that are fighting for the playoffs. There are teams that are 3-4 like us, but they've won their last three games. There are teams that are 4-3 and maybe don't feel as good as we do."

Last year the Chargers lost three of their first four games and still beat the Colts in the playoffs.

"NFL football is really still about November and December," said Dungy, whose team went a collective 37-15 in those two months over the past six years. "If you are playing well at that time of year, then that is what counts. The Giants proved that last year. Pittsburgh did a couple of years ago.

"You don't want to dig yourself in too much of a hole, but certainly the season isn't over on Sept. 30 or Oct. 30 even."

The Colts still have ample time to turn things around, along with a favorable schedule. Six of their remaining opponents have losing records and the Bengals and Lions, whom they play back to back in December, are a combined 0-15.

"We just have to learn from the stuff that's happened and move forward," said kicker Adam Vinatieri. "We just have to find a way to play better, make less mistakes, less penalties, less everything. Winning is contagious and so is losing."

Injuries have hurt

The record has a few explanatory footnotes. Manning, who's off to his worst start (10 touchdown passes, 9 interceptions, a 79.0 rating) since his rookie year, missed most of training camp and all of the exhibition season after undergoing two midsummer knee surgeries. The offensive line has been patchwork-in-progress until recently. Joseph Addai, the top running back, missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. And Sanders, voted the league's best defender last year, has played in only two games.

The Colts' creed ("No Excuses, No Explanations") forbids them from reciting that woeful litany. Besides, New England has had even worse misfortunes - quarterback Tom Brady, running back Laurence Maroney, and safety Rodney Harrison all down for the season and the cornerback corps depleted. And yet the Patriots are 5-2 and tied for their division lead.

"They do it better than anybody I've seen," said Dungy. "They don't seem to worry about adversity. They don't worry about who can't play.

"Frankly, we've taken a lesson from them. I've illustrated them in the past as to how they do it. They get everybody ready to go. The healthy guys play as well as they can and the new guys do their job. They've been an example for everyone over the years."

The Colts have been losing because they haven't been getting the job done when it matters. The offense has lost its pyrotechnic pop and the defense can't get off the field.

"I think our whole team is in a slump right now," observed Dungy, whose squad hasn't lost more than four regular-season games since 2002. "It's a team game. Everybody is in it. We have to break out of it. Usually, it's just fundamentals and doing things a little bit sharper. I wouldn't put it on one person at all. I'm in a slump."

The offense doesn't look anything like the high-speed machine that usually averages around 28 points a game. The rushing attack (73.4 yards per game) is the league's worst. Manning, whose rating puts him 22d in the league, has been throwing picks and missing receivers, who've also been dropping balls.

"It seems every time that one part of our offense is failing," said Saturday. "Whether it be the offensive line not giving him enough time, not getting open, the ball not being in the right place. Whatever it may be, everybody takes their turn not getting it done."

The defense, which gave up 25 straight points in the second half at Tennessee, can't get stops when it has to. On the Titans' game-tying drive in the third quarter, Indianapolis gave them a first down on their own 42 with an illegal-contact penalty, then another first down on the Colts 18 on a pass interference call.

"In our defense, you shouldn't get pass interference and illegal-contact penalties," said Dungy. "We just shouldn't, so it's a little baffling to me."

'Gut-check time'

With dysfunction on both sides of the ball, the Colts know they have to get on the same page quickly before the season spirals out of control as it did in 2001, when they lost five straight after starting 4-3, prompting coach Jim Mora's classic "Playoffs? Playoffs?" rant.

"This is a good mental test right now," said Manning. "This is when you find out a lot about what you're made of. It's easy to feel good and be happy when you're undefeated, but when you're 3-4 and your back's up against the wall, it's what we call gut-check time."

If there's a hidden blessing amid this startling downturn, it may be that the Colts have been forced into playoff mode two months earlier than usual.

"We kind of liked it the other way when we were floating along and cruising," confessed Dungy. "I've been in both situations and this, believe it or not, is more the reality of the NFL. It's not commonplace to have those kinds of starts that we had. We certainly appreciated them and we didn't take them for granted when we were going through them.

"I've been with a lot of teams that hit the ground running this way and improved in November and December and played great, so that's what we're looking to do."

Except for the Titans, everyone else in the AFC South is 3-4, and the Colts are only a game out of a wild-card spot. So nobody in blue is panicking just yet.

"We do know that there's a lot of season left to be played and anything can happen and there's still a chance for us," said tight end Dallas Clark. "We're definitely not checking out yet, no matter what some people may be saying or whatever you hear."

"Obviously, the goal is to have a chance to be playing for something in the end," said Manning. "But right now, the immediate goal is to try to get that one win and see if we can build off of that."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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