Indianapolis Colts  

 

Once the solution, Manning now part of the Colts' problems

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Dwight Freeney said all the right things in front of the cameras and tape recorders following Sunday's 38-35 overtime loss to Dallas. When the media gathering had walked away, the Colts defensive end looked at me and said, "The breaks used to go our way. That's not happening this year."

When is the last time we've heard anyone associated with the Colts -- or anyone speaking about Indianapolis -- mention "breaks" or good fortune (with the exception of when the Patriots went for it on the infamous fourth-down play last season)?

This is a franchise that had won at least 12 games in each of the past seven seasons, a stretch that included two Super Bowl appearances and an NFL title.

Breaks had nothing to do with the Colts' success. So systematically sound were the Colts that when Tony Dungy resigned and Jim Caldwell took over, they proceeded to win 14 straight games before surrendering the final two to rest players for last season's Super Bowl run. They were too professional to have swagger, too automatic to ever panic.

Darron Cummings / Associated Press
Peyton Manning is having a difficult time explaining perhaps the worst three-game stretch of his career.
Peyton Manning's last three games
Wk Com/Att Yds TD INT Rate Result
11 38/52 396 4 3 96.3 NE 31, IND 28
12 31/48 285 2 4 59.8 SD 36, IND 14
13 36/48 365 2 4 75.4 DAL, 38, IND 35
Total 105/148 1,046 8 11 77.7  

But suddenly, that well-built dam seems to have sprung leaks. And Peyton Manning doesn't have enough ankle tape to patch things up.

When things are going well for the Colts, Manning, more often than not, is the reason. But now that they have lost four of their last five games, including two straight at home, he might actually be a part of the problem.

He is in a slump that is killing the Colts. He knows it, so does everyone else. Nobody will blame him because a bad stretch can't undo years of him making this once-sorry franchise one of the NFL's elite. For now, though, the focus has to be on him.

Of his 15 interceptions this season, 11 have come in the past three games -- losses to New England, San Diego and Dallas. He's thrown four picks in the last two games that have been returned for touchdowns. On Sunday, his interception in overtime -- on the Colts' second possession of the extra period -- led to Dallas's winning field goal.

Manning appears befuddled by it all.

"I really don't have an explanation," he said following the loss. "I have made some poor decisions, poor throws. I have been throwing completions. My incompletions are interceptions. To have two interceptions for touchdowns, to put our team in the hole, I don't make any excuses."

Manning wouldn't blame his struggles on the vast injuries that have depleted his receiving corps and backfield, or on an offensive line that is showing wear. He easily could, but really, he can't.

It was just a few weeks before this skid when so many of us were saying Manning was playing his best football ever and was set to bend the Colts over a barrel for his pending new contract extension by winning with a group of stand-ins. He was making heroes out of guys like Jacob Tamme and Blair White, sending signals that receivers in this scheme could produce like running backs for Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos, regardless of who got his hands on the ball.

So blaming them now, when things aren't going well, is off base. They could be partially to blame, but really, what's changed has been Manning, who, to his credit, has accepted full responsibility.

"We are capable of scoring points when we execute our offense, and I don't turn the ball over," Manning said.

He's right. The Colts haven't had problems moving the ball the last three weeks, but Manning's mistakes have killed them. There's simply no room for error anymore.

The Colts are on a three-game slide that's left them at 6-6 and a game behind the Jaguars (who beat Indy in Week 4) in the AFC South. The hunted has become the hunter, but in a very different way than two years ago when Indianapolis was chasing Tennessee as the Titans were headed to a 13-3 season. This is a mediocre Colts team in a mediocre division.

Indianapolis has surrendered 105 points the past three games. The injury-depleted defense isn't solely to blame, since Manning's interceptions have accounted for two dozen of those points over the past two weeks, but, as Freeney said, it hasn't made plays to offset the offensive struggles.

It's clear the layer of invincibility has eroded, at least temporarily. Upcoming opponents like Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland can't be fearing the Colts like they used to. Instead, they're likely figuring this is a great time to catch them while they're down.

Colts players are talking about staying tight, not fracturing or pointing fingers -- things we're more accustomed to hearling out of locker rooms in Dallas, Cincinnati and Minnesota. "No margin for error" was the common mantra after losing to the Cowboys on Sunday. The Colts used to routinely have margin for error because players like Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis, and Freeney could come to the rescue.

No longer are they creating their "breaks." Instead, they've pinned themselves against a must-win wall.

"We have to win out," linebacker Gary Brackett said. "I don't know if we are at the point now where we are hoping for help, but I think we win out and then see how everything else plays out."

If the Colts win out, they would hold a tie-breaker advantage (common opponent) over first-place Jacksonville should both teams finish 10-6. The Colts and Jaguars play Dec. 19 in Indianapolis. Just the notion of the Colts hoping to get to 10 wins says a lot about how this season has gone for them.

The Colts should be getting key players Austin Collie, Joseph Addai, Clint Session, and Kelvin Hayden back from injury soon, but Freeney said they can't assume the cavalry will be able to suddenly change the team's course. It's up to everyone -- starting with Manning -- to figure it out. There's no doubt all the injuries have hurt the Colts, but they've thrived off the next-man-up philosophy in the past. It can't be used as a crutch now.

The Colts play the free-falling Titans twice in the final four games, with Thursday night's meeting in Nashville either a launching point or a trap door. Riding a five-game losing streak, the Titans have issues, but the Colts can't focus on other teams' woes; they have enough of their own.

"I don't think we have ever been 6-6," Freeney said, referring to his nine-season career with the Colts. "I remember in 2002 we were 10-6. We are just going to take it one game at a time, just like we have always done and try to get back to winning games."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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