INDIANAPOLIS --Turnovers and mistakes continue to keep the Colts from gaining traction in the 2011 season.
It happened again Sunday. The Colts suffered a fumble and an interception on their first two possessions against the visiting Atlanta Falcons. Then the Falcons transformed some big passing plays and a methodical running game into a three-touchdown lead in the first half before advancing to a 31-7 victory.
The loss dropped the Colts to 0-9. Coach Jim Caldwell was asked afterward if the possibility of such a difficult and painful start ever crossed his mind.
"I haven't had nightmares like that in a long time," Caldwell said. "Obviously, it's not something that you anticipate is going to happen. But there is no season when there are any guarantees. This one, obviously, is no different."
Another reporter asked Caldwell how he was holding up during a season that has played out without injured quarterback Peyton Manning, a four-time league MVP.
"I don't worry about me too much," the coach said. "The focus I have is on our team, on our players, certainly on putting on a much better performance on game day. We just aren't performing well right now. That's my job. I have to keep going and get these guys playing better consistently."
Delone Carter's fumble on the Colts' opening drive led to a 7-0 lead for Atlanta. Curtis Painter threw an interception to ex-Colt Kelvin Hayden on Indy's next possession, but the Colts' defense stiffened and forced a punt.
The offensive struggles continued for the Colts, whose three-and-out quickly returned the ball to Atlanta. Three plays later, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lofted a 50-yard scoring pass to a diving Julio Jones. On Atlanta's next possession, Ryan connected with the speedy Jones for an 80-yard touchdown.
The Colts are minus-8 this season in turnover ratio. Painter struggled most of the game, completing 13-of-27 passes for 98 yards before being relieved in the fourth quarter by Dan Orlovsky. The Colts totaled 83 rushing yards on 21 attempts.
The offensive problems, Caldwell said, make "it a little tough to close the gap after they have a lead on you. To keep pace with them, we have to be able to answer some of their scores. That's what we did not do. We didn't execute very well in first half. We were a little bit off. And the turnovers obviously put us behind the 8-ball."
Cornerback Jerraud Powers provided the Colts' lone touchdown on a six-yard interception return in the second quarter.
"Anytime you can get a pick-six, that's huge," Caldwell said. "But we just couldn't follow it up ... couldn't come back and answer with another score."
Down 21-7 at halftime, the Colts couldn't mount a threat in the second half. For Atlanta, Ryan added a one-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez. Ryan finished with 14-of-24 passing for 275 yards. Matt Bryant booted a 20-yard field goal to complete the scoring and secure a 5-3 record for the Falcons.
The Falcons totaled 163 rushing yards, led by Michael Turner's 71. That helped the visitors hold a commanding edge in first downs, 21 to 10, and possession time, 37:46 to 22:14.
"All in all," said Atlanta Coach Mike Smith, "I thought for the game that the offense operated efficiently. Thirty-one points should be sufficient to win a football game in this league."
Caldwell emphasized Painter's late move to the bench does not signal a quarterback change.
"Curtis is still our starting quarterback," he said. "We just wanted see if we could change the pace a little bit. We changed a few guys; he wasn't the only one."
After the early fumble, Carter saw little playing time. The rookie running back, who's the team's leading rusher this year, finished with eight yards in four carries.
Asked if he was sending Carter a message about ball protection, Caldwell said: "It's important. You have to learn that at some point in time. I think he will. But you just can't put that ball on the ground. … I think he's a young enough guy, he'll learn his lessons."
FIRST QUARTER (11:38 remaining)
The Falcons capitalized on an early Colts turnover for their first score. Delone Carter fumbled and Ray Edwards recovered for Atlanta on the Colts' 26-yard line. Five plays later, Michael Turner burst in from the 1-yard line. Matt Bryant added the extra point. Falcons 7, Colts 0
FIRST QUARTER (2:51 remaining)
The Falcons extended their lead when Julio Jones made a diving catch in the end zone on a 50-yard pass from Matt Ryan. The play was originally ruled an incomplete pass but was overturned when Atlanta challenged it. Bryant made the extra point. Falcons 14 , Colts 0
SECOND QUARTER (11:55 remaining)
Jones made another big play, taking a pass from Ryan and outrunning the Colts' pursuit for an 80-yard touchdown. Bryant added the extra point. Falcons 21, Colts 0
SECOND QUARTER (7:47 remaining)
The Colts broke into the scoring column with a big defensive play. After Pat McAfee's punt pinned the Falcons at the 1-yard line, Jerraud Powers intercepted a Ryan pass and returned it six yards for a touchdown. Adam Vinatieri connected on the extra point. Falcons 21, Colts 7
THIRD QUARTER (2:50 remaining)
Ryan led the Falcons on a 12-play, 73-yard drive that consumed 7 ½ minutes. Ryan completed all six of his passes on the march, including a one-yarder for the touchdown to Tony Gonzalez. Bryant booted the extra point. Falcons 28, Colts 7
FOURTH QUARTER (10:15 remaining)
Bryant kicked a 20-yard field goal to extend Atlanta's margin. It came at the end of a 10-play, 62-yard drive. Falcons 31, Colts 7