Peyton Manning and Co. will face the beaten-down, banged-up Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving night, which looks like just the sort of opponent to get the defending Super Bowl champions back on track for the stretch run.
The Falcons (3-7) are coming off a dismal 31-7 loss at home to Tampa Bay. They are switching quarterbacks again, going back to Joey Harrington for the third time. Both the offensive and defensive lines are plagued by injuries.
“We’re in a tough position, there’s no doubt about that,” Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking said. “Our backs are against the wall, and we’ve got some guys out there that haven’t had a lot of opportunity in the NFL. It’s their time to shine and step up and make some plays for us.”
Easier said than done.
Start with the offensive line. Left tackle Wayne Gandy went out for the season weeks ago. Todd Weiner shifted over from right tackle to replace Gandy, but he’s unlikely to play against the Colts after aggravating a knee injury that already required surgery.
Harrington might wish he was on the sideline instead of under center when he stands behind a line that now has a couple of second-year players at tackle - undrafted Tyson Clabo on one side, fifth-round pick Quinn Ojinnaka on the other - along with a rookie guard, Justin Blalock.
But the on-again, off-again Harrington is back on. The Falcons have no other choice since Byron Leftwich can’t seem to stay on the field for more than a few quarters at a time, and he probably deserved to lose the No. 1 job anyway after a dismal performance against the Buccaneers.
Having already washed out in Detroit and Miami, Harrington knows his hold on the starting spot is tenuous. He began the season as Michael Vick’s replacement but has twice handed over the job to Leftwich, who has yet to play a full game in Atlanta.
“I don’t want to say it’s a lack of patience in this league, but it’s very much a ’what have you done for me lately, immediate results’ type of league,” Harrington said. “The reality is it takes a while. Very, very rarely to you get that bolt of lightning that you’re able to hold on to.”
Harrington won’t have to contend with Dwight Freeney, out for the year with a foot injury, but he will be facing a defensive unit that is giving up the league’s second-fewest yards (266.3 per game) and just 15.9 points.
Manning should have an easier time.
Last Sunday, the Falcons lost two starters up front when tackles Trey Lewis and Rod Coleman went out with season-ending injuries. Both are severe blows to an interior line already making do without Grady Jackson, who was cut during the bye week in a thoroughly mysterious move by rookie coach Bobby Petrino.
The Falcons can only hope that Manning keeps playing as he has the past few weeks.
Indianapolis (8-2) has lost two of its last three, with Manning throwing six interceptions in a loss at San Diego, then failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time all season in last Sunday’s lackluster win over Kansas City. Injuries to left tackle Tony Ugoh, receivers Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez, and tight end Bryan Fletcher have given Manning less time to throw and less-accomplished targets on the other end of his passes.
“Pretty much, you kind of know every Monday who is going to be out or who’s not going to be out,” he said. “So you have a week to get ready for it and deal with it, and it’s up to us to make it work with whoever’s in there. That’s part of football.”
Coach Tony Dungy shrugged off his team’s recent slump, no doubt remembering that Indianapolis went through a 2-4 slide late last season but bounced back to win the Super Bowl.
“I think we’re fine and fortunately we’ve been through this before.” Dungy said. “If you go back, probably 10 months, you’ll see the same descriptions of this team, and it turned out OK.”
Indeed, the Colts are still in good shape. They lead the AFC South and are positioning themselves for a first-round bye in the playoffs, though they must hold off second-place Jacksonville (7-3), only one game back.
“That’s why every game is so important,” Manning said. “Every game you’re playing, you’re trying to keep your lead in the division. You feel like you don’t have any room for error to make a mistake and give a game back to the field.”
The Colts are hoping to get Ugoh and Gonzalez back for Thursday night’s game. Then, with 10 days until their next game, they should look even healthier by the crucial Dec. 2 showdown against the Jaguars.
For that reason, Dungy doesn’t mind this quirk in the schedule.
“If you’re organized and you get yourself a win, then you’ve gotten one win ahead of everybody else,” he said. “You get to watch the games on Sunday and relax and second-guess, and it can be good for you. That’s the way you have to approach it.”