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Week 9 Lookahead: Uneasy Indy against Peyton Manning, history

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In his final weeks in Indianapolis, as the coaches and executives he had known for years were fired, as his own fate was already all but determined while he hung in public limbo, Peyton Manning summed up the feeling in the Colts' building this way:

"It's a strange time around here, with all the coaches getting let go," Manning said then, for a story in the New York Times. "I guess that's somewhat normal for a lot of teams, but it hasn't happened around here much. Everybody in the building is walking around on eggshells because nobody knows who is going to get fired next."

It is no small irony that as Manning goes back to Indianapolis this Sunday, for what may be his final game there and with a chance to set the quarterback career wins and passing yardage records, the eggshells are getting stepped on again. The Colts, losers of three straight games and tied with the Houston Texans for the lead in the AFC South at 3-5, are in nearly as much tumult now as they were in early 2012, before Chuck Pagano was hired and Manning was released so that the team could draft Andrew Luck. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was fired this week in the first of what is likely to be a series of exits unless the Colts' fortunes turn dramatically. Three years ago, Manning was wistful about the stability he had enjoyed in his decade-plus in Indianapolis, but anybody who has paid attention to this team since then knows those days are clearly over.

And Manning has something to do with that, too. In a twist that scriptwriters love, Manning remains the fulcrum for what is happening with the Colts now. One of the lasting effects of Manning's reign in Indianapolis is a conviction by Colts owner Jim Irsay that Manning should have been even more successful there. The Super Bowl that the Colts won with Manning in the 2006 season remains the franchise's high point, but it wasn't achieved again while the Colts had one of the greatest quarterbacks in history -- who authored 11 playoff seasons -- has informed every Irsay decision since then. The failure to extend Pagano's contract before the season, the quick hook for Hamilton this week despite a history of annual progress with Luck, the boiling hot seat on which Pagano now sits, the overall shortening of patience -- all of it can be traced to Irsay's sense that the Colts did not squeeze the most out of the Manning years and that the opportunity cannot again be lost with Luck.

Irsay has made no secret of that feeling. The demand for better with Luck was verbalized after the draft when, while introducing receiver Phillip Dorsett, Irsay said "In the Andrew Luck era, we would like to win at least two World Championships."

The pressure has clearly taken a toll along with Hamilton's job. Pagano spoke repeatedly this week about the human element of having to fire Hamilton and it was obvious Luck, who called Hamilton's firing a "gut punch," feels responsible that his play contributed to the demise of a coach he has worked with since college.

"You realize if you're playing well as an offense, it probably doesn't happen," Luck said. "If you're winning games, it probably doesn't happen."

Every game, all season

Manning, not surprisingly, sought to downplay the importance of his second game in Indianapolis in a Broncos uniform. He already endured the emotional welcome home two years ago, and he has no interest in dipping his toe into the issues that have surrounded the team since he left. This week, he preferred to discuss how hard it is to play in a loud building and he declined to compare the difficulties he endured in his fourth season with the ones Luck is going through now. But with Luck struggling, perhaps with injuries and certainly with inaccuracy and inconsistency, Manning, with the undefeated Denver Broncos and a defense that just held Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards, is in the position to deliver further pain to the franchise where he enjoyed the greatest success of his career and for which he hoped to play all his years. To add to the intrigue, if the Colts lose, they would be on a four-game losing streak, and would have fallen behind the Texans (who have a bye) in the standings entering their bye week -- a dangerous time for coaches.

The soap opera dynamics aside, though, this is a difficult game for the Colts to begin their turnaround. Pagano compared Denver's dominating defense, which leads the league in most major categories, to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

"When you put the tape on, it's a scary movie," Pagano said.

Consider what a difficult task new coordinator Rob Chudzinski and Luck have. Because of the limited preparation time, Chudzinski can't make any drastic changes to the offense. But during his time as Carolina's offensive coordinator, Chudzinski gained a reputation as an aggressive play caller, pushing the ball down the field with Cam Newton at quarterback and Steve Smith at receiver. Pagano said one of the reasons he felt a change was needed was that he saw the offense do the same thing game after game -- and by that he meant slow starts.

In three of their seven games, the Colts have been scoreless in the first half. The Colts are averaging just 21.6 points per game, 20th in the league, with the bulk of the scoring coming during furious comebacks like the one Monday night that sent the game into overtime before the Colts succumbed to the Carolina Panthers. That is a particularly difficult trend against the Broncos, who have not allowed a first quarter point this season, because falling behind against the Broncos allows their pass rush, which leads the league with 29 sacks, to rush the quarterback without fearing the run. Luck will have to be particularly careful. He leads the league with 12 interceptions, and the Broncos D already has nine.

If Luck and the Colts are looking for a roadmap of what may be to come after this game and beyond, they might take a peek across the sideline Sunday afternoon. Manning's Colts went 6-10 in his fourth season, and he threw 23 interceptions and 26 touchdowns. After two straight years of making the playoffs with Manning, the Colts missed the playoffs in 2001 and Irsay made a coaching change, firing Jim Mora and hiring Tony Dungy. That set Manning and the Colts on the most successful -- and stable -- years of the franchise's existence. As Manning plays what may be his final game in the stadium where so many of the banners are of his doing, it's worth wondering if his triumphs -- and maybe more importantly, the ones he missed -- will hover over Luck and Colts long after Manning retires.

Three more games to watch on a packed Week 9:

1) If history is an indicator, the undefeated Carolina Panthers may be catching the scuffling Packers at the worst time. Aaron Rodgers threw for just 77 yards against the Broncos last week, but the Green Bay quarterback has not lost consecutive games in the same season since 2010 and in the last 14 games following a loss, Rodgers is 14-0 with 45 touchdowns and five interceptions. Still, the Packers are in a decided offensive slump, scoring just 19.5 points per game in their last four games, and Rodgers faces an uphill battle against the Carolina defense that is allowing a league-best 64.5 opponent passer rating and has the personnel to duplicate the Broncos' tack of getting pressure with the front four and using a linebacker to contain Rodgers if he scrambles. The Panthers' rushing attack -- the only team to have more runs than pass attempts -- could also limit Rodgers' time on the field.

2) After Tony Romo was injured when the Cowboys played the Eagles in Week 2, Jerry Jones was certain his team would win at least a few games with the backup quarterback before Romo returned late in November. The Cowboys are 0-5 since then and on their second backup, and the rematch with the Eagles highlights not only how wrong Jones was about his backup quarterbacks but how big of a miscalculation the Cowboys made with their running backs. When the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray (he has been a disappointment there after being the league's leading rusher in 2014), the Cowboys put their faith in Joseph Randle. He was released this week. With both offenses sputtering behind very inconsistent quarterbacking, the defenses have allowed these teams to remain relevant and will be the key to this game. If Dallas can somehow win, they would be right back in the NFC East mix, with Romo set to return later this month.

3) A suddenly critical game in the AFC wild-card race will hinge on a few questions: Can Ben Roethlisberger shake off the rust from his knee injury, reduce the interceptions (he had three last week in his return) with Charles Woodson lurking and leading the league in picks, and get the Steelers' offense on track without Le'Veon Bell? Are the Raiders so for real that they can do what is always difficult for West Coast teams: win a 1 p.m. kickoff on the East Coast? And can the improving Steelers defense hold off a young Raiders offense that now ranks in the top half of the league in the most significant offensive categories and which has especially taken off in the last two weeks? The Steelers, in the midst of a three-game stretch at home and almost certainly out of the division race, need this victory because right now the Raiders would be in the playoffs. The Steelers would be watching at home.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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