The Atlanta Falcons head to Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium this Sunday for a scheduled 1:00 PM contest with the home-standing Colts. The Falcons are -8 1/2 point favorites according to the opening NFL odds.
This contest was obviously seen during pre-season as a marquee matchup that would feature two of the game's best QBs, Peyton Manning of the Colts and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. However, Manning hasn't been in uniform due to a neck injury, and the 2011 Indianapolis season has largely been a washout. The long-held consensus opinion that one player's absence doesn't really make that big of a difference has been sorely tested in the Colts and Manning's case, as Manning's replacements, first veteran Kerry Collins and more recently Curtis Painter, have struggled mightily trying to fill in for the future Hall of Famer and consistent NFL MVP candidate.
The Falcons are coming off their bye week, and at 4-3, are tied with Tampa Bay for second-place in the NFC South, a half-game behind New Orleans. On a 2-game win streak, Atlanta's last game was a 23-16 victory two weeks ago at Detroit. QB Matt Ryan was inconsistent, suffering two interceptions against the Lions on his way to a 20 for 34, 218-yard afternoon. Workhorse RB Michael Turner had 122 yards on 27 carries, while TE Tony Gonzalez, future Hall of Famer, moved into second place all-time in NFL receptions with his 5 catches. Gonzalez trails only legendary Jerry Rice with his 1,104 career receptions.
Against Detroit, Atlanta's defense did something other Lion opponents have found difficult to accomplish this season, and that's slowing down their offense. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford, who attended college at the University of Georgia, was held to a season-low showing, connecting on just 15 of 32 passes for 183 yards. WR Calvin Johnson, who played collegiality at Georgia Tech, was somewhat more successful, latching onto 5 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, but the rest of the offense was held in check by the Falcon's defense.
The Colts 2011 woes continued this past Sunday in a 27-10 loss at AFC South rival Tennessee. Now 0-8, the Tennessee victory snapped a six-game Colt winning streak in the series, and kept the Titans (4-3) a half-game back of division-leading Houston. Indianapolis' season average of 192 yards per game passing is revealing, since that would have been almost an average half of work for Manning. Combine those numbers with the Colts 102 yards per game rushing, and it's easy to see where the problems begin. A healthy return of RB Joseph Addai from a hamstring injury would be a huge plus, and if Painter begins to hook up better with the still-talented receiving corps (Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie), a semi-turnaround is not out of the question.
The offense was expected to struggle without their leader, but the defense has been a complete mystery. Ranking 22nd league-wide in passing yards allowed and 31st (next-to-last) in stopping the run, Indianapolis has been less-than-effective on both sides of the ball. Of course, the offenses' inability to sustain long drives, an automatic under Manning, contributes mightily to the defensive performance, as they are forced to be on the field much longer than is either normal or conducive to effectiveness. DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still among the NFL's best pass-rushing tandems.
The long 2011 continues for the Colts, and other than two games remaining with Jacksonville, it's difficult to find any "winnable" games remaining on their schedule. But, as this past Sunday proves (Rams vs Saints), and last Monday night (Ravens vs Jaguars), anything can happen in the NFL. Atlanta can't afford many more losses, and they still have the bulk of their NFC South schedule looming. If the Colts can somehow contain Michael Turner, this could be an entertaining contest.
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