After back-to-back home losses, the Indianapolis Colts will try to avoid losing a third consecutive game for the first time in head coach Chuck Pagano’s four seasons.
That will likely require the Colts’ best effort of the season on Monday Night Football, considering they’re touchdown underdogs at the unbeaten Carolina Panthers (6-0), who are enjoying the best start in the franchise’s 21-year history.
“These guys will respond,” Pagano said Friday. “They always have.”
It’s true, the Colts have finished 11-5 the past three seasons. But a loss against the Panthers would saddle Pagano’s 3-4 team with its fifth loss with eight regular-season games remaining. They’ve had continual issues in about every area, turnovers, penalties, star players underperforming, 32nd-ranked defense, a struggling offense and botched special teams.
“We need to win, period,” he said.
While the Colts still lead the AFC South Division, they’ve won their three games against division foes and lost all four against everyone else, continuing a trend during the Pagano era. They’re 19-2 in division play and 20-20 against everyone else with Pagano, who is in a contract year.
So far, the Colts have fallen fall short of offseason expectations for a legit Super Bowl contender.
“Expectations have never changed since last year,” said Colts inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, whose 79 tackles lead the NFL. “We’re still where we want to be, obviously not record-wise but we’re still at the top of the division.
“One week could change it all, change the conversation.”
Carolina has the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack at 144.7 yards per game. Quarterback Cam Newton flourishes in the read-option offense as a dual threat. He’s the first quarterback in NFL history to star a career with 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in four consecutive seasons and he’s well on his way to a fifth with 1,275 yards passing and 245 yards rushing. He’s passed for nine touchdowns and run for four.
“Cam, he’s a big power guy that can move,” Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis said of the 6-5, 245-pound Newton. “It’s not exactly the same as preparing for a smaller, shiftier quarterback. We have to prepare for everything, and they have a running back that can tote the pill.”
The Colts’ 23rd-ranked rushing defense must also contend with Jonathan Stewart, who has 423 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, with two scores.
“Little mistakes really led to huge problems,” said punter Pat McAfee. “I think that’s kind of been a key for us all year. It’s the little things that turn into big things. It’s kind of a cliché, but it’s a real problem if you don’t hold on to the ball. Turnovers hurt you. You put your defense in bad situations, you’re going to get hurt. It’s just little things that we have to get corrected. The onus falls on the players. We’ve just kind of got to make it happen. We’ve got to start stacking wins, and that’s really all it’s about.”
Carolina is plus-4 in turnover ratio while the Colts are minus-8, next to last in the league. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has committed 10 of the team’s 15 turnovers. He’s 1-3 on Monday Night Football.
“I think the stage in my mind has never really mattered for a game,” Luck said Wednesday. “You go out there to play to win. If some guys are motivated by it being Monday night, and it is a great stage of football I don’t want to take anything away from that, then that’s great. In my mind, it’s always been you play the game no matter if a big stadium, small stadium, on TV or not, you should be playing as hard as you can.”
The Panthers are sixth in scoring at 27 points per game while the Colts are tied for 23rd with a 21-point average.
Because Carolina is 29th in passing offense and doesn’t throw the ball like most NFL teams, the Colts must stop the run and get ahead to put pressure on Newton and the Panthers to throw. A good start would help. The Colts have been outscored 100-58 in the first half.
“They are solid all over the board defensively,” Luck said. “You talked about (defensive tackle) Kawann Short (team-high five sacks), they’ve got a great pass rush unit. They’ve got two great inside linebackers (Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly) that can play sideline to sideline and have a great mix of sort of veteran and younger guys in the secondary that make plays and are aggressive so it’s going to be a tough nut to crack. I think guys are excited about that. I know I am. A lot of respect for their defense and it will be a great challenge.”
While the Panthers have an unblemished record, all six wins have come against teams with losing records. Their opponents have a combined record of 15-26.
“There’s nothing like winning,” Pagano said. “That cures a lot of ailments.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.