After their undefeated run came to an end, the Colts look to rebound Sunday night against an Eagles team that has lost star quarterback Donovan McNabb for the rest of the season.
For the second straight year, Indianapolis (9-1) was the league’s last unbeaten team. The Colts’ run was brought to a halt last Sunday with a 21-14 loss at Dallas.
“There’s no pressure,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. “I’d like to see us play well and win every game and play better than we did last year. One benefit is that we don’t have to answer that question (about being undefeated) any more.”
While the Colts may be able to relax a little now that an undefeated season is out of the question, the Eagles (5-5) are in a jam after McNabb tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in last Sunday’s 31-13 loss to Tennessee.
The five-time Pro Bowl quarterback’s season has ended early for the third time in five years. Jeff Garcia will replace McNabb, who is expected to be sidelined for at least eight months.
“He’s a great player,” Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said of McNabb. “But we can still win football games with the guys that we have.”
Philadelphia is hoping to duplicate the success it had the first time McNabb went down with a season-ending injury.
The Eagles were 7-3 when McNabb broke his ankle and had to miss the final six games of the 2002 season. Koy Detmer led Philadelphia to a victory at San Francisco before he injured his elbow late in that game and was replaced by A.J. Feeley.
A second-year pro seeing his first meaningful action, Feeley went 4-1 as a starter and the Eagles finished 12-4 to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC. McNabb returned for the playoffs, but the Eagles lost their second straight conference championship game.
But Reid has decided to start former Pro Bowler Garcia over Feeley, who was re-signed by Philadelphia after he was cut by San Diego in the preseason.
Last season, the Eagles were 4-5 while McNabb played through a sports hernia. After he was lost for the season with a groin injury, the Eagles went 2-5 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999 as they played without many injured starters as well as Terrell Owens, who had been kicked off the team.
While Mike McMahon was ineffective subbing for McNabb last year, the Eagles should be in better shape this time around with the veteran Garcia.
The receiving corps, led by Donte’ Stallworth and Reggie Brown, is considered to be much better than either of the groups in 2002 or 2005. Plus, Brian Westbrook is healthy—he was hurt for the final four games last season— and is a more dangerous running back than Duce Staley was in ’02.
Philadelphia is still in the playoff mix, only one game behind five 6-4 teams in the cluttered NFC. Only Chicago (9-1) has more than six wins. Two other teams—Atlanta and San Francisco—are tied with the Eagles.
“We have the elements to do it,” Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins said. “We did it (in 2002) by capitalizing on every play that was presented to us.”
The Eagles defense may be just as big a concern as the McNabb-less offense. Since losing defensive end Jevon Kearse to a season-ending knee injury in Week 2, the pass rush has been inconsistent and teams are having an easy time running the ball against them.
Now Philadelphia will try to stop two-time MVP Peyton Manning and the Colts, who are coming off their worst game on offense this season.
Manning fumbled twice and threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown against the Cowboys.
Indianapolis committed only four turnovers in its first seven games, but has eight in the past three.
After complaining for weeks about the Colts’ mental errors, Dungy believes Sunday’s loss sent a stronger message.
“I think it has a bigger impact when you see it happen in a loss and it affects you,” Dungy said. “One turnover or one dumb penalty when you win, maybe you don’t look at it as critically.”
Indianapolis has gone from one of the least-penalized teams in football to nearly dropping out of the top 10. The Colts’ red-zone defense is the worst in the AFC, allowing 19 touchdowns in 29 drives or 65.5 percent of the time, and their run defense remains last in the league at 165 yards per game.
The loss, though, could work to the Colts’ advantage.
Last year, they clinched the AFC’s top seed with three weeks to play and decided to rest many of their starters the final two weeks of the season. After that, Indianapolis never regained its momentum and lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round at home.
With Baltimore and San Diego only one game behind the Colts, the battle for home-field advantage will force Indianapolis to continue competing.
The Colts will try to get their ground game back on track against Philadelphia. They have been held below 100 yards rushing in three of the past four games, including 88 yards on 23 carries against the Cowboys.
The Eagles are 12th overall in total yards allowed (310.0 per game), but only six teams have given up more yards on the ground (129.7).
“For the whole season up to this, we’ve been beating ourselves,” Philadelphia linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. “We’re our toughest opponent.”
This is these teams’ first meeting since a 35-13 Colts win on Nov. 10, 2002, when Manning went 18-of-23 for 319 yards and three touchdowns.