- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The Indianapolis Colts are sputtering along at 3-3, having allowed more points than they have scored. They are in danger of falling four games behind unbeaten Tennessee, should Monday night's game turn into another loss. Colts fans used to winning can't be pleased; in the past, the most anger fantasy owners would show at this team would be in a typical Week 17, when clinched byes would send statistical stars to the bench and bring out Jim Sorgi types. Oh, how things have changed.
While it certainly appears that Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison is nearing the end and is no longer a reliable fantasy option, and first-round fantasy pick Joseph Addai will be sharing touches with Dominic Rhodes even when he's deemed healthy, the star of this team and face of the franchise -- for fantasy and otherwise -- remains Peyton Manning. And Peyton Manning is not delivering strong or reliable fantasy numbers. Not yet.
Twelve quarterbacks enter Week 8 with more fantasy points than Manning, which isn't a huge surprise given his inconsistent season, but it's the quality of players right on his heels that is bothersome. J.T. O'Sullivan, whose job is hardly safe in San Francisco, is a mere two points behind. Castoff Chad Pennington, with a mere six touchdown passes, is three points back. It's one thing to see quarterbacks thriving ahead of Manning, like the surprising Kyle Orton or the emerging Matt Schaub, but O'Sullivan and other obvious preseason free agents?
Things aren't likely to get better for the great Peyton Manning on Monday in Nashville, as the 6-0 Titans feature a shutdown defense that has allowed only 66 points and one passing touchdown. To be fair, the Titans haven't faced a top quarterback, or close to it -- the past three weeks it's been a pitiful threesome of Chiefs, rookie Joe Flacco and Gus Frerotte -- but Manning is likely to run into problems because he's not performing at the same level he has in recent seasons. He followed up his surprising 22-point game against the Ravens in Week 6 by getting picked off twice and providing five fantasy points. Even if Manning were facing the Lions, would fantasy owners care?
The short answer is yes, that Manning remains capable of helping fantasy owners with useful stats, but he has dropped off the top of the fantasy quarterback wish list for a number of reasons. First, we've now learned that one offseason knee surgery was actually two, hampering Manning's ability to make throws. The offensive line has struggled with consistency, and the team's weapons, other than Reggie Wayne, haven't stepped up with healthy, productive campaigns. I'm skeptical Harrison and Addai will deliver close to the stats expected of them, but I'd actually call this a good time to deal for Manning -- things will get better.
After the Titans game, the Colts face the Patriots and Steelers, but then the schedule really eases up. Name a defense easy to throw on, and Manning has it to look forward to. November features the Texans, Chargers and Browns, in order, and when fantasy players have their most important games, in the playoffs of December, the Bengals and Lions are teams visiting Indiana's capital. This is great news for those who have suffered through Manning's inconsistency this season. And really, stop complaining, since it could be far worse. He's still producing, just not at the level of a first-round draft pick. You could have picked a few spots earlier and selected Tom Brady. Then where would your team be?
Although the poor outing in Green Bay didn't show it, Manning's knee is likely getting stronger, his line is developing more cohesion, and the pending return of Addai -- probably in Week 9 -- won't hurt. A season ago, Donovan McNabb was recovering from a torn ACL -- a totally different injury, of course -- but still we saw him get stronger as the season progressed. Manning should improve as November hits, and wise fantasy owners should capitalize. He didn't play in the preseason, so it's natural to have to be patient with him.
Don't expect Manning to have a big game against the tough Titans, but the low points of his season will soon come to an end. In fantasy terms, we call that a perfect buy-low opportunity. Combine schedule, personnel and health, and Peyton Manning should end up a top-10 quarterback after all, and possibly in the top five. It's a far cry from being a first-round draft pick or finishing among the leaders in fantasy points, but at this point, wouldn't you take it?
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell analyzes Peyton Manning's disappointing season to this point, but suggests that he's a buy-low candidate right now.