Healthy Colts primed for stretch run
Expect to see the real Colts now that several key players are getting healthy, John Clayton writes.
The worst is over for the Colts, the defending Super Bowl champion operating in the shadow of the New England Patriots.
Coming off their Nov. 4 loss to the Patriots, the Colts played three games in 11 days with the thinnest roster in football. For two games, they had more injured players than spots on the eight-man inactive list. During those three games, the Colts didn't look like the league's No. 2 seed, which is only natural. They had too many injuries.
The nine-day break after their Thanksgiving game has allowed the Colts to reload. Sunday's AFC South showdown against the Jaguars is a statement game. If they can beat the Jaguars, the Colts can proudly say, "We're back!''
Wide receiver Marvin Harrison may not be back from his knee injury, but the Colts can run their offense now that receiver Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark are healthy. For two games -- a loss to the Chargers and a low-scoring win over the Chiefs -- QB Peyton Manning had receiver Reggie Wayne, running back Joseph Addai and little else on offense. No wonder his statistics started to drop. Critics wondered if Manning was losing it. He wasn't.
The game against the Jaguars (8-3) is the true test for the Colts (9-2). At stake is the lead in the AFC South. If the Colts win, they can start looking ahead to the playoffs and a possible rematch with the Patriots. If they lose, the Jaguars would be tied with the Colts.
When these teams met last, the Jaguars were 5-1 and Colts were 6-0. On that Monday night in Jacksonville, the Colts proved that their speedy defense can contain the Jaguars' powerful running attack. The Colts' 29-7 victory showed that they have regained their swagger in the division. Last year, the Colts couldn't stop the Jaguars' running attack.
Now the Jaguars must make one final push at the Colts or concede the AFC South. Coach Jack Del Rio has done his best coaching since that game. The Jags won twice during a three-game road trip with Quinn Gray at quarterback. Del Rio also has survived the suspension of defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and injuries to linebacker Mike Peterson and cornerback Rashean Mathis.
Colts coach Tony Dungy also has done a remarkable job, fighting through the injuries but not letting the Colts use those injuries as an excuse. The Colts have three AFC South home games in the final five weeks, but this is the most important one.
This game comes down to whether Jags QB David Garrard can generate touchdown drives. Last week, Garrard led five field goal drives. He needs TDs, not field goals, against the Colts.
1. Tampa Bay at New Orleans: Nothing comes easily for the Bucs. Coach Jon Gruden has taken a 4-12 team and turned it into a potential division champion with guts and hard work. On Sunday, the Bucs could virtually wrap up the NFC South. A win would give them a three-game lead over the Saints, but it won't be easy.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia has a bad back and isn't sure he's going to play. Michael Pittman re-injured his ankle in Week 12, pretty much leaving the running game to Earnest Graham. Plus, the Bucs will be facing a desperate team at the crossroads of its season.
If the Saints want to be a playoff team -- either a division winner or a wild-card team -- they must win this game. The numbers have been scary for the Saints this season. They have been among the worst in dropped passes, opposing quarterback rating and big plays allowed. The schedule is favorable for the Saints to pass the Lions for the final wild-card spot, but that mission starts with this game. If they can't win a home game against the Bucs, they would almost have to start making plans for next season.
2. N.Y. Giants at Chicago: Few quarterbacks get as much criticism as Eli Manning and Rex Grossman. New York's Manning is vying for his third consecutive trip to the playoffs as a starting quarterback, but his performance drop-offs in the second half of the season continue to kill any confidence fans have in him. Chicago's Grossman started in the Super Bowl, but he's lost his starting job once and is fighting an uphill battle just to stay with the Bears beyond this season.
What's clear is that both quarterbacks need help from the running game, and Grossman could be the loser in that battle. Derrick Ward should be available this week, giving Manning some help even though Brandon Jacobs probably won't be available. Without the threat of the run in Week 12, Manning looked lost against the Vikings. He threw to bad spots and made bad decisions in the passing game. Not that he was much of a factor, but Cedric Benson is lost for the season with an ankle injury, so Grossman must rely on backups.
3. Cleveland at Arizona: Though their playoff hopes aren't gone yet, the Cardinals know it's do or die in the next two weeks. The overtime loss to the 49ers in Week 12 was devastating. The Browns come to town with supreme confidence. Against Houston in Week 12, the Browns' offense had another big game and their secondary stepped up.
Browns coach Romeo Crennel might not be willing to say it publicly, but he knows the Cardinals should be able to move the ball through the air. The Cardinals have big, physical receivers who overmatch the Browns' corners. The key to this game will be how Cleveland's Jamal Lewis runs the ball. Lewis is getting hot down the stretch. The Browns are hoping Lewis can chew up yardage and clock, which will keep the Cardinals' offense on the sidelines for long stretches..
4. San Diego at Kansas City: In Week 12 against the Ravens, the Chargers' defense finally looked like the unit that was dominating pro football in 2006. Coach Norv Turner must take that show on the road and do the same at Arrowhead.
The Chargers are 1-4 on the road, and they need to show they can play better away from home. After all, the Chargers are looking at only one home playoff game, figuring they will have to travel either to New England or Indianapolis if they advance past the first round.
5. Detroit at Minnesota: The Lions are in free fall. They have lost three games in a row. Momentum is shot. Panic is starting to set in, and Rod Marinelli needs to turn things around quickly. A great 6-2 start is turning into a tease that is driving Lions fans crazy.
The Vikings have gained a lot of confidence in recent weeks. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson might not be putting up big numbers, but he's being more efficient. Running back Adrian Peterson should be back from his knee injury, although the Vikings won't overuse him.
Coach Brad Childress plans to work Peterson back gradually, and he can do that because of the hard running of Chester Taylor. For the Lions to win, they must stop the Vikings' running attack.
6. Houston at Tennessee: Albert Haynesworth says his hamstring injury shouldn't be blamed for the Titans' three-game losing streak, but the Titans' defense isn't the same without him. Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch formed a great one-two punch on one side of the Titans' defensive line.
The Titans hope Haynesworth will be back this week -- they need him. The playoffs are slipping away. Vince Young is having some growing pains at quarterback. And, surprisingly, the running attack has been missing in recent weeks. That can't be blamed on Haynesworth.
7. Buffalo at Washington: The Redskins must somehow focus on football in the wake of Sean Taylor's death. Expect a lot of emotion at FedEx Field, and don't be surprised if the Redskins play their best football. Coach Joe Gibbs is a strong person and the team will likely rally around his sound leadership.
The Bills are making a switch at quarterback, going to rookie Trent Edwards. Injuries to running back Marshawn Lynch (out) and Anthony Thomas won't help, and having 11 injured players on an already-thin roster might make this a tough road trip.
8. New England at Baltimore: The Patriots looked vulnerable against the Eagles in Week 12, but the Ravens don't have the offense to show them up. Baltimore QB Kyle Boller was betrayed in Week 12 by poor blocking. On defense, the Ravens have a lot of proud veteran players, but they have been beaten too many times in the secondary. Expect a big game from Tom Brady. Oddsmakers set the line at around 20 points. They still can't figure out what to do with the Patriots.
9. Seattle at Philadelphia: The Eagles installed new sod at the stadium, but it has had two weeks to settle, not the two days that made such a mess in Pittsburgh. Coach Andy Reid's biggest decision this week is whether to go with Donovan McNabb or A.J. Feeley at quarterback. Feeley was sensational at times against the Patriots, but McNabb is still the best quarterback on the roster.
The Seahawks don't play their best football away from home, so this will be a good test to see if they can play well on the road against a good team. With road games remaining against Carolina and Atlanta, this is Seattle's last big road test before the playoffs.
10.New York Jets at Miami: Is this the week? The winless Dolphins (0-11) have given up only 46 points the past four weeks, but the losing continues. Bad luck has dogged Miami, which has lost six games by three points apiece. Oddsmakers favor the Dolphins because they are at home and are due.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.