A team missing its quarterback travels to face a team that has suddenly lost its way when the Indianapolis Colts (4-5) visit the Atlanta Falcons (6-3) Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Colts are coming off their best win of the season at home over Denver, but it came at an extreme cost as quarterback Andrew Luck was lost for 2-6 weeks with a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle. That means 40-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck, who led the Colts to wins in Weeks 3-4, is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the offense going and his team in playoff contention.
Suddenly, the AFC South Division isn’t a gimme. The Colts are tied with the Houston Texans for first place and the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6) are one-half game back. A sweep of all three division foes gives the Colts a tiebreaker edge for now.
What worked with Luck against the previously unbeaten Broncos as well as Hasselbeck against the Texans and Jaguars was a quick-hit passing attack coupled with a reliance on the run game. Running back Frank Gore’s 28 carries against Denver were the most since 2011, and the 32-year-old back insists he doesn’t mind the workload.
Atlanta has the NFL’s third-ranked run defense, so it’s imperative that Hasselbeck loosens up the Falcons to create running lanes. And because Atlanta’s 10 sacks are fewest in the league, the Colts' offensive line should provide the passer with ample time.
“They’re well coached, they’re fast, physical, flying around,” Hasselbeck said. “They don’t do a lot of things necessarily but what they do, they do very, very well. They create turnovers. … I think they started out 5-0, undefeated, they were winning the turnover battle, winning the turnover ratio and just for whatever reason the last maybe four weeks the ball hasn’t gone their way that way. But tons of respect for (head coach) Dan Quinn and his defense and how they play.”
As confounding as the Colts’ inconsistent season has been, the Falcons were the surprise team early before losing to New Orleans, Tampa Bay and San Francisco in the last five weeks. Like the Colts, the Falcons are coming off a bye. Unlike the Colts, the Falcons have had a lot of time to think about how they somehow lost to the 49ers.
“We can’t fall into that trap,” Colts defensive end Kendall Langford said of the Falcons’ recent struggles. “We can’t look at it that way, we are definitely not looking at it that way. It’s a big challenge for us. It’s a huge challenge actually. We are up for the task.”
The Colts’ 28th-ranked defense will be missing Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams (ankle) when it tries to slow down quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman. Jones leads the league with 80 receptions. Freeman leads the league with 11 touchdowns.
“Yeah, they’re playing pretty good offense there,” Langford said. “They have a running back who I believe is leading the league in touchdowns. He gets a lot of touches whether it’s handoffs or in the passing game. He’s a huge part of their offense. We all know who Julio is and what he’s capable of. In my opinion, he is one of the best in the league if not the best, so we got our work cut out for us this week and we’re excited about it.”
The Colts are 5.5-point underdogs, a line to be expected considering the loss of Luck. But after beating the Broncos and based on the previous success with Hasselbeck, the team is confident it can start to build momentum with the stretch run about to begin.
“I think we saw against the Broncos really what we envisioned this team to look like,” said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, “so hopefully we can keep trending in the right direction, not only offensively, but all three phases, and hopefully stack some wins together.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.