Much Will be Learned in Coming Weeks, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – As Peyton Manning sees it, answers could come soon.
Manning, the Colts' eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said Wednesday while the situation – a two-game losing streak, a sub-.500 record – entering Sunday night's prime-time game against a longtime, high-profile rival is a difficult one, it's not insurmountable.
Yes, the Colts are under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade.
And, yes, they trail the AFC South by more games than at any time in the division's seven-year history.
But Manning said Wednesday while the situation is difficult, it's also an opunity.
How will the Colts respond to adversity?
Manning said they may be about to find out.
"This is a good mental test right now," Manning said Wednesday afternoon as the Colts (3-4) prepared to play the New England Patriots (5-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 8:15 p.m.
"This is when you find out a lot about sort of what you're made of. It's easy to feel good and be happy when you're undefeated. When you're 3-4 and your back is up against the wall, it's sort of what you call gut-check time. I think we will respond the right way."
The Colts, who have won the last five AFC South titles, lost to the Tennessee Titans, 31-21, Monday night in Nashville, Tenn., a loss that moved them four games behind Tennessee in the division. They are now tied with Jacksonville and Houston four games behind the Titans.
The Colts before this season never had trailed in the South by more than a game.
The Colts, a playoff team the last six seasons, are tied with Jacksonville, Houston, Miami and Cleveland for the eighth-best record in the conference.
The four division winners qualify for the postseason, along with two wild-card teams.
"It's not a desperate situation," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said Wednesday. "It's the fact that we have to string some wins together."
On Wednesday, reporters and cameras crowded around Manning's locker as is typical on game-week Wednesdays. The topic was an unusually difficult start.
Manning said there were no simple answers.
"Everybody wants to summarize the whole season based on one game or one play or this or that," Manning said. "While you're in the middle of it, you truly are taking it one week at a time. People are asking those questions, 'Is the window closing?' I don't really see football in windows. The fact is, we have lost two in a row and we have an extremely tough game Sunday. It's going to be tough from here on out, especially when you put yourself in a hole. That's what we're concerned about – just trying to get a win. That's what we have to do this week – somehow find a way, scratch, fight to get a win."
The Colts, after a players day off Tuesday, gathered as a team at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center Wednesday to begin preparation for the Patriots. The teams have played the first week of November the last three seasons, and in each of those seasons, the Colts entered the game undefeated.
"This, believe it or not, is more the reality of the NFL," Dungy said. "It's not commonplace to have those kinds of starts we had. We certainly appreciated them and we didn't take them for granted when we were going through them, but I've been with a lot of teams that have hit the ground running this way and improved in November and did great. That's what we're looking to do."
Said Manning, "There are plenty of teams that are angry out there. That doesn't mean you're going to go out there and win the next week. I know the Patriots could care less about what our record is our how we feel. I think we do have the right kinds of guys in this locker room to handle the adversity."
Dungy said he took time Wednesday morning to show players that a sub-.500 record didn't mean a team couldn't make the postseason. Two of the last three Super Bowl champions – the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005 and the New York Giants last season – entered the postseason as wild-card qualifiers.
The Titans have the AFC's best record, Dungy showed the players.
The AFC's second-best record is 5-2.
"I showed the team where are right in the thick of the AFC," he said. "There are probably 12 or 13 teams fighting for the playoffs. There are teams who are 3-4 and won their last three games. There are teams that are 4-3 and maybe don't feel as good as we do. It's a gamut of things.
"What it comes down to is you get to November and you really have to be playing well and get on a streak and string some wins together. That's the same every year, whether you're on top of the division or in the middle of the pack as we are."
The Colts, who lost to Green Bay 34-14 two weeks ago, last lost back-to-back games by 10 or more points each in 2001, but Manning said Wednesday there were aspects of the loss to Tennessee on which to build. The Colts and Titans were tied, 14-14, and the Colts – who entered the game last in the NFL in rushing offense – outrushed the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing offense.
"Our effort was outstanding the other night – a lot of guys playing hard and flying around," Manning said. "We just have to sharpen it up. I think we do have the right kind of guys who will keep fighting hard, stick together and answer the challenge. . . .
"I don't think anybody's happy. I think everybody's mad about not winning the game the other night, but everybody realized why it happened. The Titans made more plays in the second half than we did. It's about channeling that energy into improvement, and going out and taking it to the practice field and doing our jobs a little bit better and just trying to be better in the execution part of it."
The execution, Dungy and Manning each said, is what has lacked at times this season. Offensively, the Colts have ranked in the top four in the NFL in scoring offense in eight of the last nine seasons, and they have been in the top five in the NFL in total yards eight of the last nine years and in the top 10 in the NFL in total offense nine consecutive seasons.
After averaging at least 25.8 points in eight of the last nine seasons, the Colts are averaging 21.3 points a game this season. They are 22nd in the NFL in scoring.
And after averaging at least 351 yards a game in each of the last nine seasons, they are averaging 315.1 yards a game this season. They are 21st in the NFL in total offense.
"I'd say you have to say it's a slump," Dungy said. "Usually, we're around 28-to-30 points (per game). We've generally scored more touchdowns than we've had punts. We haven't done that. You either have to say skills are deteriorating or we're in a slump. I think offensively we are just a little bit off. I don't see our skills deteriorating. I guess for lack of a better word, that's what I'd have to call it. . . .
"I've been watching (Philadelphia Phillies first baseman) Ryan Howard in the World Series. He was struggling with those curve balls for a while, and coming up with runners in scoring position, and he was just a little bit off. All of a sudden, he got hot. Hopefully, we can do the same thing.
"I think we still have that type of talent. Hopefully, we can take a cue from him."
Manning, who has made the last six Pro Bowls and eight of the last nine, has completed 162 of 265 passes for 1,754 yards and 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions for a passer rating of 79.0. Manning's lowest career passer rating in the last nine seasons was 84.1 in 2001.
"I think our whole team is in a slump right now," Dungy said. "It's a team game, so everybody is kind of 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."
Dungy paused and added with a smile, "I'm in a slump," and pointed to two 4th-and-1 situations in the last two weeks as proof. Against the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, the Colts punted on 4th-and-1 from their 49, and Green Bay drove 89 yards for a touchdown on the next possession to take a 17-7 lead. The Colts never got closer.
This past Monday, he opted to go for the first down on 4th-and-1 from the Colts 49. Running back Dominic Rhodes was stopped for a 1-yard loss.
The Titans drove for the go-ahead field goal and the Colts never led again.
"Go for it, it's bad," Dungy said. "Go for it and don't make it, it's bad."
He added with a laugh, "We went for it in Houston and made them, but that was a long time ago."
Said Manning, "I really can't give you a one-word, or a one-sentence summary, but we do need to play better. We need to find a way to score some more points. It just comes down to executing better and trying to be sound – all 11 guys doing the right thing at the same time. Not 10 guys on this play and nine guys on this play. That's kind of what we need to get back to and this would be a good week to start doing that. . . .
"I can't really summarize every single person's feelings right now, but I would like to think guys are disappointed about the last two weeks, about losing the last two games. I expect we'll see good practices these next three days, because we have good professionals in here who know how to take care of their business. That's what we have to do this week."