At this point, Peyton Manning has to be wondering if he has entered some kind of twilight zone. His records in the NFL are breathtaking and he was recently listed as eighth in the NFL Network’s list of the top 100 players of all time. That designation is not helping him. Right now, Manning is doing something he hasn’t regularly done since his rookie season – costing his team football games.
There is absolutely no doubt that the Colts have lost four of their last five games as a team. Better efforts on the part of the defense during periods of the game, better blocking by the offensive line, and more offensive balance could all play roles in helping the Colts overcome the worst five game series the franchise has had in a decade. Still, it is no secret that Manning is the man, the one people expect the most from, and rather than winning games for Indianapolis, the team has had to try to win games in spite of him.
In the first quarter, the defense looked slow, flat, and unprepared. For some reason, they were not playing with intensity and the Cowboys ran a fast paced offense that bulldozed a defense on its heels. Gary Brackett was visibly affected by his turf toe injury. He could not run at full speed or make cuts as quickly as normal.
The linebackers too often sold out by running directly into offensive linemen without taking any time to use their eyes to see where the ball was flowing. This often allowed Dallas running backs Tashard Choice and Felix Jones to cut back to wide open field and use their speed to gain yards in chunks. Keyunta Dawson was another liability, and even rookie Kavell Conner struggled and showed a lack of hustle.
Manning did not help his defensive teammates when he threw an interception on the Colts first offensive possession.
The defensive struggles continued in the second series. Jon Kitna exploited an inexplicable match-up between Pat Angerer and Cowboys top wide receiver Miles Austin. Dawson failed to contain Austin on an end-around on the very next play. Hagler and Brackett both continued to struggle. When Hagler was not getting blocked out of plays, he was adding his contribution to the “sell out before reading the flow of the ball” defensive philosophy.
In the second quarter the offense put together a scoring drive, but that was only after Manning threw a pick-six. Effectively, the successful offensive drive made up for the points Peyton Manning gave Dallas on the prior possession.
The defense stiffened up, keeping the Cowboys from adding to their 17-7 lead, including holding Dallas to a three-and-out on their first series in the second quarter. When the offense got the ball back, they apparently decided a first down was unnecessary. McAfee punted the ball away and the Colts entered the half down 17-7.
For the first time in awhile, the Colts offense did what they typically do when they start the second half with the ball – they had a convincing, powerful, and efficient touchdown drive. This gave the Colts 14 unanswered points and the momentum started to swing.
The defense responded by keeping the Cowboys offense from getting anything going. Dwight Freeney started to abuse Dallas’s offensive line, forced a holding penalty, and the offense got the ball back for a chance to take the lead.
The offense failed to capitalize, went three-and-out, and put the defense right back onto the field. Eric Foster made a nice play by penetrating deep into the Dallas backfield to stop Jones for a loss of yards. Robert Mathis also stunted into the interior of the Cowboys offensive line and generated a sack.
Hagler’s struggles continued though, as he failed to stick with Witten in coverage down the seam. Then, on a linebacker blitz, Kitna hit Roy Williams on a pick play that allowed Dallas to get back into field goal range to extend their lead, 20-14. By keeping Dallas out of the end zone, the defense gave Manning and company another chance to take the lead.
A few plays later, Manning threw his third interception, another pick six, which allowed the Cowboys to move ahead 27-14. He did all of that, of course, just to take his next possession down the field to hand the ball off to Javarris James for hard fought touchdown run on the goal line. Manning giveth and Manning taketh away.
The defense came back onto the field charged with holding the line — once again down by six. Hagler and Moala both made nice run stops, and Freeney tallied a sack to force the Cowboys to punt the ball back to Manning and the Colts offense. BUT WAIT! Recently signed wide receiver Taj Smith blocked the Mat McBriar punt and recovered it for a touchdown. The Colts take their first lead 27-28.
Placed immediately back onto the field, the defense bent, as Dallas moved the ball into the red zone and to the one-yard line. Impressively, the defense stood strong, kept the Cowboys out of the end zone, and gave the ball to Manning with a chance for the win. Almost.
Instead, what could be the most illogical rule in the NFL was enforced against Eric Foster who attempted to leap over the Dallas offensive line during a field goal attempt, resulting in a “leverage” penalty and a new set of downs. The Cowboys pushed the score back to a touchdown lead after a Kitna to Witten score, and two-point conversion to Roy Williams.
In old school Colts fashion, Manning utilized a heavy dose of Reggie Wayne to march down the field in the Indianapolis two minute offense. Javarris James capped the drive for his second rushing touchdown and tied it up with only seconds remaining in regulation. The Cowboys kneeled out and yielded to overtime.
After the Colts won the toss and elected to receive, Manning’s favorite target, and regulation offensive hero, Reggie Wayne dropped a pass he catches nineteen out of twenty times. This forced Pat McAfee to punt the ball away.
The defense continued its impressive play and forced a three and out featuring another Muir run stuff and holding penalty due to pressure from Freeney. The Colts offense had another chance to win the game.
On third-and-four, Manning forced a pass in Jacob Tamme’s direction which was tipped and intercepted. Manning’s fourth interception of the game resulted in Dallas taking over already in long field goal range. The defense allowed the Cowboys to get a couple of first downs and Buehler kicked the game winning field goal.
The good news is that, offensively, the Colts have started to develop one of the most talented groups of receivers in the NFL. Even without Austin Collie, who sat again with a concussion, and Anthony Gonzalez, who is on the injured reserve, the combination of Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Blair White, and Jacob Tamme is formidable. Each of the receivers did as much as they could to help Manning and the offense put up yards and generate points. Garcon, in particular, displayed sure hands, and had his best game of the 2010 season.
While the offensive line continued to struggle opening up any holes on the ground, the pass blocking was much better than it has been in weeks. Manning took a few hits but was not sacked.
Other than the poor first quarter play, there were a lot of defensive positives to take away from the game. Fili Moala, Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, and Eric Foster all managed to have their own impacts on the game. Only Keyunta Dawson really showed signs of struggling along the defensive line.
Even though the linebackers started off slow and had some discipline problems early, the rotation of six different players, for numerous packages, gives the Colts more flexibility at this position than might be readily apparent to the casual observer. It is a rare luxury for any NFL team to have six players they can confidently rotate into the game for specific looks and to defend against a multitude of situations.
The cornerbacks played exceptionally well against a talented Cowboys receiving unit, even without veteran Kelvin Hayden. Even more impressive may be that although Jerraud Powers went down before the game was over, there was no panic or gaping hole exposed.
The most important thing to take away from the Colts loss to the Cowboys is that there was a period of time in the fourth quarter where fans had a chance to see something that has been missing for a long time. Fans actually got to see the Indianapolis Colts play football. For weeks a product that was something other than the Colts has been taking up valuable time in stadiums and on national television. That brief glimpse looked like what Colts fans expected they would see consistently throughout the year, a team playing up to its potential.
The Colts have their backs squarely against the wall now though. Glimpses of what the team can do will not be enough. Indianapolis must win out their final four games to win the AFC South and advance to the playoffs. If they do, and if Addai, Collie, Session, and Sanders can return and make the impacts they are expected to make — believe it or not — the Colts still have a chance to salvage the season.
In order to do so, the Colts will need one other thing. They will need Manning to stop throwing away football games.