Colts plan to use time off to gird themselves for final push
ATLANTA -- Playing their sixth game in 32 days, a remarkably grueling stretch doled out by the NFL schedule maker and exacerbated by a string of injuries, the Indianapolis Colts approached their Thanksgiving night game against the Falcons with a definite "Three R's" philosophy.
First the Colts, who spotted Atlanta an early 10-point advantage and then stormed back to bury the overmatched Falcons 31-13, demonstrated the kind of resilience that has been a hallmark of coach Tony Dungy's team. And now, for their reward, the Colts can enjoy the two other R's -- rest and rehabilitation -- that are so important to the defending Super Bowl champions as they enter the playoff stretch run.
The Colts host the Jaguars on Dec. 2; Jacksonville trails Indy by one game in the division and lost the first meeting between the two five weeks ago. Between now and then, the Jags must first confront the improved Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Between now and then, the Colts, mercifully, get "some time to exhale," as Manning said.
They certainly need it.
Indianapolis played Atlanta minus six starters, including both offensive tackles and eight-time Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison, who missed his sixth game of the season as he continues his rehabilitation from a left knee injury. The offensive line, which allowed an uncharacteristic four sacks, had only two players in their normal positions. Right guard Jake Scott was forced to play right tackle, which he has only done previously in such emergency situations.
Starting tailback Joseph Addai suffered a neck injury in the first quarter that reduced his playing time. The Colts took some silly penalties, including one that negated a touchdown, and broke down a bit on special teams; a blown coverage by rookie nickel cornerback Dante Hughes that the Falcons turned into their lone touchdown. And wide receiver Reggie Wayne, forced to take up the slack in Harrison's absence, had three drops, one on a perfect parabola of a pass on which he had beaten rookie cornerback Chris Houston and would have scored.
But in the end, none of it mattered because, as had been the case since the injury epidemic began, players stepped up and made plays. And as a result, the Colts now get to step back for a few days, with Dungy stressing to his team the need to kick back over the weekend before heading into the season's final month.
Hopefully, with a few guys, most notably Harrison, back in the lineup.
"We felt like, if we could just get through these two games [in five days], Kansas City on Sunday and then the Falcons tonight, and get two wins and not get any worse off from an injury standpoint, we would be in good shape," Dungy said. "We took care of that. Now we get to a December that is meaningful."
Dungy reiterated that he hopes Harrison, who had missed only six games in 11 seasons before this year, will return against the Jags. He acknowledged the Colts have "targeted that game" for the veteran's comeback. Indianapolis has been especially prudent in its treatment of Harrison's injury, looking at the big picture and the run to the playoffs in considering how to handle it.
That the Colts have been able to get to 9-2 and maintain a lead in the AFC South, despite losing back-to-back games to New England and San Diego by a total of just six points, is attributable to the performances of role players and youngsters. On Thursday night, it was rookie wideout Anthony Gonzalez, the team's first-round draft pick, who came up big.
Coming off a thumb injury that had sidelined him for two weeks, the former Ohio State star had six receptions for 105 yards. While he didn't score, Gonzalez set up touchdowns with catches of 35 and 32 yards, and his confidence seemed to grow as the game progressed. Backup tailback Kenton Keith, who got more carries because of Addai's injury, led Indianapolis' ground game with 74 yards. And reserve linebacker Rocky Boiman, playing for Hagler, who had taken his starting job earlier in the year, had an interception.
"As beat up as we are," said tight end Dallas Clark, the recipient of one of Manning's three touchdown passes, "we just find ways to win. It might not be pretty. It might not be the way we're used to doing it. But the important thing is, we're winning and we've gotten through this stretch, and now we can get some people healthy."
Characteristic of a Dungy-coached team, this is a Colts bunch that handles adversity well, a club that doesn't make excuses and just keeps plugging away. When healthy, there is little doubt Indianapolis is an elite team. When wounded, it reverts to being one of the most resourceful teams in the league.
It is also a team that heeds Dungy's oft-delivered message that the season is a marathon, not a sprint to the finish line. But now that the finish line is in sight, and with the playoffs again on the agenda, it seems, the Colts plan to use the time off this weekend to gird themselves for the final push.
Manning pointed out that, because of the injuries, even the healthy players are a bit more worn down than normal right now.
"At practice, you've got guys taking more reps because we don't have any No. 2s or No. 3s at some positions," he said. "So it takes something out of everyone. But we somehow seem to find a way. And now we get to catch our breath before the big push comes."Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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