Last week, things didn't go as planned. Peyton struggled. The run game struggled. The officials struggled. And the result was a loss for the Colts. The margin of error for the 2010 Colts isn't quite gone, but it's safe to say they can't really afford to give away another game. With the ever popular Dallas Cowboys coming to town, here's what to watch for this Sunday:
1. Watch the slump. It's all anyone can talk about. Peyton Manning's passing stats have been in free fall since the carnage of the bye week. Peyton has posted a passer rating under 70 in three of his last four games. His yards per attempt has dipped below SIX five times in seven games. Of course, injuries to Manning's most reliable weapons has accounted for much of the slack, but that hasn't stopped the vultures from circling. The Colts need 18 to break out of his funk. I mean, it's been a whole month since his TD/INT ration was 15/2!
2. Watch the returns. Let's face it, after losing the special teams battle to the worst special teams unit in football, Dez Bryant has to scare the living bejeebus out of the Colts. Indy is going to try and fix their own return woes with Justin Tryon, but the real concern is the dynamic Dallas rookie. Bryant has returned a league high two punts for scores. Dallas has the best punt AND kick return units by DVOA in football. The Colts can't afford to give up cheapy big plays to the Cowboys. The special teams should 'improve' slightly as more players get healthy, but it appears that that's still a ways off.
3. Watch the limp. Reggie Wayne has been missing practice time with a knee injury, which seemed like a code word for 'veteran rest'. However, after his miserable outing last Sunday, all of us have to be wondering what's wrong with him. Granted, a knee injury wouldn't explain the ball he lost in the lights or the pass that him him in the chest, or the dropped quick slant, but there has to be some kind of explanation. Wayne played all out the week before in New England, but a better game out of him last week could have changed things for the Colts. Indy desperately needs him to take over like he did in 2007, but he no longer seems capable.
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4. Watch and DeWare. DeMarcus Ware is one of the dominant pass rushers in the NFL. With 9.5 sacks from the outside linebacker spot, he can wreak havoc on teams. Manning has struggled against the 3-4 look a couple of times this year, but you can be sure he'll know where Ware is on every play. The only question is if the Colts blockers will be able to figure it out.
5. Watch the shell game. With Charlie Johnson severely in doubt for Sunday, it's natural to expect Linkenbach to slide back out to left tackle and Pollak to reenter the starting line up at right guard. While I would be thrilled to see this particular line look strong, the entire exercise feels like a shell game where the pea was slipped out a long time ago. Keep moving around the pieces. There's no winning this game.
6. Watch for clearance. Some people have wondered why the Colts 'rushed' Austin Collie back originally. Frankly, that doesn't seem to fit the facts. They sat him for an entire game, and he cleared tests by an independent neurologist (NOT a team doctor) before he was allowed go back out on the field. The Pats then intentionally went after his head. The Colts didn't even leave him on the field for a half before not only removing him from the game, but physically removing his shoulder pads and helmet from the sideline in the event he tried to sneak back on the field. The Colts desperately miss Collie, but I don't get the impression that ANYONE wants him out there before he is ready. If Collie gets clearance to play, you have to remember that it won't just be team doctors that have to write off on him. The team is in a tough spot. Collie is lobbying to play, and they'll have to make the call on his health. Just because he's cleared doesn't mean he ought to play (as we saw before). I wouldn't want to have to make that decision.
7. Watch the inevitable comparison. With the chances of Mike Hart playing at least some on Sunday looking good, fans will be taking note of how he seems to compare with Donald Brown. Personally, I don't feel like their first game as a tandem (Houston) was a fair fight as Brown was still battling injury. Now Brown is basically healthy, and it's Hart coming off an ankle tweak. Honestly, I expect Brown to dramatically outplay Hart. If he doesn't, then we'll have some answers.
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8. Watch for wave after wave. Dallas has lots of running backs (though Marion Barber is hurt). Felix Jones and Tashard Choice just haven't been effective despite interesting pedigrees. The problem for the Cowboys is that neither has actually run the ball well. Jones has had a similar profile to Don Brown: ineffective running, but highly effective out of the backfield. The Cowboys envisioned having bruising offense washing under the opposition with run after run. It's been more like a soft gentle tide lazily lapping the bleached tropical sands. Of course the Colts line hasn't exactly been like a foreboding Maine coastline either. I'm not sure this metaphor is working very well. Let's move on.
9. Watch wide. Brody Eldrige has practiced all week, and I suspect his return will pay immediate dividends in the run game. Eldrige's arrival this year had helped the Colts off to their best running start in the past couple of years, but injuries have hampered him in recent weeks. If he's able to play regularly tomorrow, this should help Don Brown who is more of an outside runner. Basically anything that gets Gijon Robinson off the field is a good thing.
10. Watch the guy like the guy we don't have any more. Jason Witten is Dallas's Dallas Clark. The perennial Pro-Bowl tight end for the Cowboys is a threat in the passing game at all times. With Gary Brackett still struggling with a bad wheel, we'll likely see only limited time from him. Pat Angerer has been an ok stop gap, but still has a long way to go in coverage. Witten is a massive mismatch and could end up having a huge game unless the Colts find a way clamp down on him.
11. Watch the date slide right by. Look, I've never been too optimistic that Bob Sanders is coming back. I know better than that. Still, the team desperately needs him, so I've been keeping the flame of hope alive. Polian originally put the Dallas game down as the time he would return. That has come and gone, and as of this writing, Sanders still hasn't been cleared by Dr. Andrews to practice yet. The team had a choice on who to put on IR, Sanders or Gonzo. While I recognize that at the time the thought was that safety was the bigger need (Collie hadn't gotten hurt yet), if we don't see Sanders in time for the now HUGE game with Jacksonville in two weeks, I think we come close to marking this down as one of the worst personnel decisions of the Polian era. Like I said, I get the reasoning. But given our now desperate need for wideouts, Bob had better come back able to play.
11. Watch for posers. The Colts and Cowboys are the two most popular teams in the NFL according to a recent poll. Well, both have hit a bit of a rough patch this year, and generally when that happens, people suddenly stop liking them. Personally, I hate the Cowboys because when I was in high school, they suddenly got good and everyone started to like them. It nauseated me. There will be a lot of Dallas fans at the game tomorrow, just because there are always a lot of Dallas fans everywhere. They always have lame excuses for why they were born in Akron, but love the Cowboys. "My dad gave me a Cowboys watch when I was 4, and I always loved them!". Drives me nuts.
12. Watch the job interview. Jason Garrett has his shot. If he's going to land the Cowboys gig (aided by a little labor uncertainty), this is his best chance. Dallas has two games against the Eagles, and then winnable contests with the Redskins and Cardinals. Garrett has to figure that if he can split with the Eagles, beat the Colts, and take the two winnable games, he'll be a lock at 6-2 over all as coach to keep his job. Garrett is an offensive coach, and he has to know that the Colts defense has been vulnerable (though not at home). Garrett will throw the kitchen sink at this game. This could well land him the permanent job as head coach of the Cowboys, so look for his best play calling effort.
13. Watch the best returner we've had all year. Justin Tryon is back. He has the average kick return of any of the six guys we've tried at the position. No sooner did the Colts find him, however, than he got hurt. Of course he did. Anyway, now he's healthy and we should see immediate improvement. Tryon isn't super dynamic, but he should be able to get us to the 25 yard-line at least. Considering that Brandon James was the WORST returner we've had all year...well, it's something.
14. Watch his plan. Roger Goodell wanted the last month of the season to be filled with division games. Well it's here, and after Dallas, Indy finishes with three AFC South games in four weeks. They will probably all be meaningful, but there's still an outside shot the last game with the Titans could be nothing more than a glorified walk-through. If the Colts can get to 10-5, the final game probably won't matter in terms of winning the South, only determining seeding in the AFC. Indy needs to stay ahead of the AFC West winner if it's San Diego, but they own the tiebreaker over the Chiefs.
15. Watch for annoying halftime and pregame commentary. Fox only gets one Colts game this year. I hate Fox's NFL studio. They'll make a big deal out of the Colts because, they are such a top draw, and all the commentary will be shallow, shrill, and generally ignorant. Terry Bradshaw will be guaranteed to take a shot at Manning as he always does. He resents the fact that no one considers him one of the best of all time anymore and has always taken the 'rings over stats' side, because well...rings are all he has. Unless winning the Super Bowl in the same year you lead the NFL in interceptions counts as a stat. It doesn't? Yeah, he'll take rings.
16. Watch the short week and the rest. The schedule has been unkind to the Colts who played three teams coming off of bye weeks this season, AND got the Cowboys after Thanksgiving. Dallas has had plenty of extra time to prepare for this game. As far as the Colts go, they play again in just four days. Indy needs to jump off to big lead so that they can rest some players down the stretch. They also have to consider the short week when it comes to who to activate for the game. The Titans game means much more in terms of tiebreakers and winning the division, so Indy needs to be able to field a healthy team on Thursday too.
17. Watch for one this week. Eyes is a time consuming endeavor, so I'm not likely to get one out for the Titans game. This will likely have to satisfy until the Jags game. Plus if the Colts lose, I might just go into a coma. I'm running on emotional fumes with this blog as these losses are starting to fray my nerves. I need a win. Wins are the fuel that keeps this ship afloat. The next five days should tell the story of this season. If this team is over .500 this time next week, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Hopefully they'll be 8-5 and things will be looking up.
18. Watch for the bleeding to stop. I'm not going to lie: we need this one. No, it's not a must win yet...10-6 will be good enough in the South, but let's not fool ourselves. If this team, even as hurt as it is, can't beat a 3-9 Cowboys team with John Kitna as QB playing in the Luke, then it's not a contender for anything. It doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be a blowout. It just has to be a win. They get it. 27-13.