But next Sunday, , should provide an answer to a question that has hung over much of the season: Is this the end of the ’ remarkable playoff streak with ?
The ’ on Sunday set up that rarest of events: a meaningful late-December game for the Colts. At this time last year . The answer came on Dec. 27, when the Colts pulled Manning in the third quarter against the Jets. That allowed the Jets to come back to win and begin their stunning playoff run, which made them Super Bowl favorites — perhaps prematurely — this season.
Not this year for Indianapolis. The Jaguars are 8-5 and lead the A.F.C. South, one game ahead of the Colts, who must win out to ensure themselves a playoff spot. In peril is the Colts’ postseason streak, which stretches to eight seasons. That puts Manning in league with , who took the to the postseason eight straight times; , who did it with the 49ers seven times; and Terry Bradshaw, who went with the eight times, although in 1974 Joe Gilliam wound up as their leading passer.
Still, Manning’s struggles in the Colts’ recent three-game losing streak — he threw 11 of his 15 interceptions (including four that were returned for touchdowns in two games) — have captivated an audience that is used to his machinelike consistency. , which included a familiarly flawless Manning performance (25 of 35 for 319 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions), pulled some fingers off the panic button, but Sunday’s showdown with the Jaguars, who have given the Colts trouble in the past, will stand as the litmus test of the season.
The Colts’ biggest concern this week is probably not how their offense will perform — it generally does well against Jacksonville — but how often it will get the ball. The Jaguars, with an impressive running game and quarterback David Garrard excelling on third down, can play keep-away better than most opponents. When they met in Week 4, each team had nine possessions. But against the Giants — the Colts’ best performance of the season — the Colts had 12 possessions. Against the , they had 10.
Still, , the former quarterback who is now an analyst, watched every one of Manning’s passes from four games this season and saw “absolutely zero” indication that Manning might be losing something off his throws.
“I watched mechanics and ball speed and all that stuff,” Dilfer said. “There’s nothing. There’s not one iota of drop-off.”
That should not be surprising. Manning started the season with 15 touchdown passes and 2 interceptions, and there were early-season murmurs that this could be his best season.
The problem, then, seems to be something Manning’s former coach distilled simply on : Manning is pressing because since that early-season run, the Colts have been decimated by injuries, forcing young, inexperienced players into critical roles and making the Colts even more reliant on Manning than they traditionally have been.
The Colts are passing on 64.1 percent of plays, a significant uptick from the 61.3 percent they passed last season, when they went to the Super Bowl. They were especially lopsided during the three-game losing streak as Manning threw 52, 48 and 48 passes, versus 20, 13 and 17 runs.
“They’re not running the ball real well,” Giants quarterback said. “He’s in a tough spot having to throw it every down, and teams know it.”
That’s a bad formula no matter who is playing offense. It’s especially dangerous when there is a rotating cast of characters, some of whom, Manning acknowledged with a laugh after Thursday’s game, are so unfamiliar that if he had been told before the season they would be playing, he would have said the Colts were in trouble.
The Colts have 16 players on injured reserve, including tight end Dallas Clark, receiver Anthony Gonzalez and six safeties. Running back Joseph Addai has missed seven games, and receiver Austin Collie has missed five.
The Colts have a staggering 19 undrafted free agents on the active roster (including seven undrafted rookies, part of their 14 rookies). And there are 10 players who were not on any team’s active roster on opening day, including receiver Blair White, who against the Titans , earning what appeared to be a screed from Manning that would make his ears bleed. Things may even get worse.