As last week progressed, the subtle signs of worry were dribbling out of the Indianapolis Colts' practice facility. In an offensive meeting, quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) was sharing a nine-year old memory of the last time he was sitting at home when the playoffs began. Veterans were talking about getting swagger back. Wideout Reggie Wayne(notes) was telling reporters that the season wasn't over, and that no teams would want to see the Colts in the playoffs, because "I don't care what our record is, you know what you're up against."
And he's right: The more we watch the Colts, the more we realize what their opponents are up against. An alarmingly mistake-prone Manning. An offense with only one go-to player. A defense that breaks down in critical moments. And in the larger picture, a franchise that isn't just slipping … but one that has fallen out of the picture as a legitimate Super Bowl contender after Sunday's 38-35 overtime loss at home against the Cowboys.
This is why the Colts are this week's biggest loser. When I look at the AFC, I think there is galactic chasm between their defense and the ones rolled out by the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets. And while that's arguably nothing new when you take the long view of the last few seasons, we can no longer take for granted that the offense will make up the difference. It hasn't the last few years, and I'd argue the offensive units from the last two or three seasons were actually better – or at least more consistently mistake free – than what Indianapolis brings to the table now.
No, the entire dynamic changed after Week 6, when Manning's true favorite target, tight end Dallas Clark(notes), was lost for the season. Say what you want about Reggie Wayne, or Manning's abilities to spread the ball around to different pieces, it was Clark who was truly the glue of the unit. He was either making the consistently reliable plays that Manning counted on, or he was creating enough mismatches to open the passing game to far less experienced players.
Is it crazy to think this whole thing hinges on Clark? Well look at Manning's numbers before and after Clark was placed on injured reserve. In the first six games with Clark, Manning threw 13 touchdowns and two interceptions, and posted passer ratings of 99 or higher in five of the six games. And in the six since Clark was removed from the equation? Manning has 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and has posted passer ratings of 89.9, 67, 69.8, 96.3, 59.8 and 75.4. In his last three games, he has thrown 11 interceptions – more than any three game span in his entire 13-year career.
And those struggles have exposed a reality that was highlighted in Sunday's loss to Dallas. Late in the fourth quarter, when the Colts needed a touchdown to tie and force overtime, five of Manning's six completions went to Wayne (14 catches, 200 yards, 1 TD) – the only guy he can trust at this point to make the plays he needs. Last season, when Clark and Wayne were both on the field, things were exponentially more simple because Manning could pick and choose inexperienced ancillary players like Pierre Garcon(notes) and Austin Collie(notes) at key moments.
But with injuries to Clark and Collie, he's forced to fixate on Wayne in critical moments, or risk mistakes by players who haven't earned his trust. Someone like Blair White(notes), who made a critical route-running mistake that cost Manning one of the two interceptions returned for a touchdown against Dallas. Or someone like Garcon, whose hands have proven too inconsistent to strike a much-needed, big-play balance with Wayne.
Don't get me wrong: The Colts can still score points. Despite the lack of a consistent running game between the 20-yard lines, and the wealth of second- and third-tier skill position pieces, Manning finds a way to score. But he can no longer do it without risk. He can no longer do it without mistakes. And in a season where the Colts are suddenly 6-6 and left with no margin for error in a brutal AFC playoff race, the ground beneath their feet is opening up.
Sunday's home game against Dallas was a must-win situation. It was the kind of thing where Manning could always be counted on to deliver. But the loss of Clark has corrupted too much. And when this season's obituary is written, we'll remember the end came weeks before the current three-game slide. Indeed, opponents know what they're getting from here on out with the Colts – a struggling team that will once again be sitting at home when the playoffs begin.
On to this week's other winners and losers …
Watson leads the Browns with 574 receiving yards.
(Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
• Ben Watson
I doubt many people realize the Cleveland Browns tight end is having a career season, and creeping up the league's tight end rankings. His 10 catches against the Miami Dolphins were a career high, and he has become the most reliable passing option on a team that lacks consistent big-play ability in that phase of the game. I'll always wonder what would have happened if Watson hadn't spent the first six years of his career with a New England team that underutilized him.
• Greg Jennings(notes)
His lack of big-time production was a head-scratcher the first five games of the season, but the Green Bay Packers wideout has been nothing short of magnificent since Week 6. His 122 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the 49ers gives him 761 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in the last seven games. With Jennings on pace for career highs in both yards and touchdowns, the 2009 contract extension is looking like a bargain.
• Jacksonville Jaguars' running game
Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) and Rashad Jennings(notes) dominated in the Jags' win over the Titans, rushing for 230 yards on 41 carries. That led to a wicked edge in time of possession: 39:54 to 20:06. Jones-Drew is starting to look like the dominant guy from 2009 again, averaging 133 rushing yards per game in his last five. The touchdowns (six total) aren't where they have been in the past, but that's more a function of the rise of tight end Marcedes Lewis(notes) in the red zone.
• Tamba Hali(notes)
The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker notched two sacks in the win over the Denver Broncos, including one that resulted in a pivotal fourth-quarter fumble as Denver was driving. There were many questions about whether Hali could ultimately stand up and adjust to a linebacker spot in a 3-4 scheme. Now he's got a career-high 10 sacks in only 12 games and looks primed to be the next defensive player to sign a contract extension.
• New York Giants' offense
Flip-flopping Brandon Jacobs(notes) and Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) has worked wonders, largely because it has lit a fire under both players. Both are playing as well as a tandem as they have all season, despite an offensive line that has been banged up for the better part of a month. It's helping to stave off that typical late-season Eli Manning(notes) fade, which has undone the Giants the past two seasons. This team is a much more frightening playoff contender as a strong running team than when Manning is throwing 40 times a game.
• New Orleans Saints' offense
Christopher Ivory(notes) deserves a tip of the cap for having a strong day that helped the Saints avoid giving too many touches to Reggie Bush(notes) in his first game back. Ultimately, this unit is getting back into the big-play groove that powered the team to a Super Bowl last season. The Saints had plays of 52 (twice), 55 and 43 yards in the win over the Bengals. That's 202 yards of offense on four plays – and from four different players. There may not be another team in the NFL that can do that.
• Adrian Peterson
Only the Minnesota Vikings running back could go into a game with a gimpy ankle and lightened load and come out the other side with 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. Oddly enough, I think Peterson ran with as much authority in this game as any other this season. No doubt, this team looks alive right now. Maybe waiting to fire Brad Childress was the biggest mistake this season.
• Mike Martz
The Chicago Bears offensive coordinator is doing what most people thought he never could with Jay Cutler(notes) and the Bears' offensive line: He's suddenly running a balanced attack, and it is paying dividends. Cutler has averaged only 24 pass attempts the last three weeks, as the Bears have placed an emphasis on hitting the 20-carry mark with the combination of Matt Forte(notes) and Chester Taylor(notes). The result has been Cutler turning the ball over only twice in that three-game span (one fumble, one interception) and a Bears team playing to its defensive strength. How long can Martz continue a trend that is so out of character for him?
• Matt Ryan(notes)
Another week, another decisive fourth quarter for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback. This time it came against the Buccaneers, when Ryan rallied the Falcons from a 24-21 deficit in the final minutes with an impressive 3 ½-minute, 77-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 9-yard touchdown to wideout Michael Jenkins(notes). But what made this even more impressive was that Ryan rebounded from some struggles that included a pair of bad interceptions. He's showing grit as a leader and doing what the best quarterbacks do: forgetting mistakes and making plays when the game is in the balance.
• Steve Spagnuolo
Sitting at 6-6 and tied for the NFC West lead after Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals, I believe Spagnuolo will give Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris a run for his money for coach of the year honors. You could argue that Morris has more to work with, not to mention the fact that Spagnuolo is getting it done with a rookie quarterback. But both have stacked up wins against bad teams. We'll find out how far the Rams have come in the next two weeks, when they face vastly more talented and experienced teams in the Saints and Chiefs.
• Oakland Raiders' running game
One way to slow down the Chargers' offense is to hog the ball. That's what the Raiders did in Sunday's win, surprisingly dominating the third-best rushing defense in the NFL. Darren McFadden(notes) and Michael Bush(notes) ground out 192 yards on 42 carries, and Oakland dominated the clock by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Welcome to the easiest solution to the Raiders' quarterback problems: Run the ball well enough that Jason Campbell(notes) doesn't have to factor in.
• Marshawn Lynch(notes)
Finally, the Seattle Seahawks got the big game they'd been waiting for from Lynch. "Beast Mode" resulted in three touchdowns in Sunday's win over the hapless Carolina Panthers, including a 22-yard fourth-quarter romp that moved the game into blowout status. Justin Forsett(notes) still appears to have the most explosive ability out of the backfield, but perhaps this will spark Lynch in the red zone, which is where he is most needed. Lynch really needed this game for his confidence.
• Dallas Cowboys
They are playing hard for interim coach Jason Garrett. And while they nearly imploded by allowing 21 fourth-quarter points to Indianapolis, they made the pivotal plays in overtime that delivered the win. The defense still leaves a lot to be desired from a consistency standpoint, but Garrett is calling a good game on offense. Maybe the balance is more of a function of not wanting to count on Jon Kitna(notes), but I've got to believe the days of Tony Romo(notes) consistently throwing 40 passes a game are gone. Indeed, Romo's injury might be the best thing that has happened to this team in the long run.
Orton suffers one of his four sacks.
(John Rieger/US Presswire)
• Denver Broncos' pass protection
Denver is lucky Kyle Orton(notes) made it through the loss to Kansas City. In totality, he took some of the hardest shots he has all season long. The Tamba Hali sack and forced fumble was brutal. The running game was encouraging, but the Chiefs' pressure from the secondary couldn't be handled. Don't be shocked if this is a 3-13 or 4-12 team when it's all over.
• Barry Richardson(notes)
The Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle got yanked for a false start penalty near the goal line, then promptly lost his mind on the sideline, shoving fellow offensive lineman Jon Asamoah(notes), and then special teams coach Steve Hoffman on the sideline. Emotions run high, but he looked like an idiot with his tantrum. He should get a nice little fine from Todd Haley for this one.
• Chad Henne(notes)
I'm going to resist the temptation to blow up the Miami Dolphins quarterback, since he was playing a fairly good Cleveland defense without the services of Brandon Marshall(notes). And at least one of his three interceptions was off a deflection and not his fault. That said, the Henne roller coaster isn't instilling confidence, particularly when his bad games are so exceedingly awful. I don't expect things will get better against the New York Jets next week, either. He can expect to have to fight for the starting job next season.
• San Francisco 49ers offense
It's hard to rail on the unit with its best player, Frank Gore(notes), knocked out for the season. But with or without Gore, there's not a lot of creativity here. That's disappointing because Vernon Davis(notes) and Michael Crabtree(notes) have the skills to work for mismatches. Every game, there is always some kind of a nagging annoyance to pick on. This week in the loss to the Packers? Not a single pass to Brian Westbrook(notes)? Not a single screen attempt? Yes, Westbrook is old, but I refuse to believe there wasn't a mismatch to be had there.
• Nate Burleson(notes)
The Detroit Lions wideout guaranteed a win over the Bears, which is always a really smart thing to do when you're playing for a 2-9 team. Chicago responded by sending the Lions to 2-10, as Burleson backed up his words with three catches for 27 yards. Maybe it's just me, but if you're an average player for a bad team, it's probably best to just keep your head down.
• Tennessee Titans defense
Tennessee displayed some of the worst tackling I've seen from this team since last season's 0-6 start. But this time, the Titans don't have a massive spate of injuries to blame. Jacksonville's backfield romped in a game that has to be one of the most deflating losses of the season. Somewhere, Keith Bulluck(notes) is smirking. He has certainly been missed at times.
• Cincinnati Bengals' mental toughness
First they jump offside in the waning seconds, with a three-point lead and with the Saints facing fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 7-yard line. Then, in what seemed totally inexplicable, cornerback Jonathan Joseph plays off coverage against Marques Colston(notes) with the Saints sitting at the 3-yard line and in position to take the lead. The result was a quick-hitting touchdown pass to Colston. This team finds ways to lose.
• Chargers coach Norv Turner
They'll likely have to win the division to make the playoffs, which makes getting manhandled by the Raiders and the resulting 6-6 record arguably the worst loss of the season. It essentially moves the Chargers into a corner next week when they face Kansas City at home. Lose that one, and they might as well start packing up. And if they don't make the postseason, I don't see Norv Turner retaining his job.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Sunday's loss to the Falcons, they still haven't beaten a team that is going to factor into the playoffs. At some point, they have to beat someone with a winning record to prove they are worthy of the postseason. It may not matter anyway. The loss to Atlanta likely seals the Bucs' fate in the NFC South, and leaves them in must-win situations the rest of the season to stay in the wild-card race.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Jacobs is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season.
(Jim O'Connor/US Presswire)
Loved: The vision, patience and footwork of Brandon Jacobs on the Giants' game-opening touchdown drive against Washington. He made decisive cuts and showed burst. He hasn't looked this good since 2008, running for 103 yards on only eight carries on Sunday.
Loathed: Seeing Albert Haynesworth(notes) deactivated against the Giants for not getting enough snaps in Friday's practice due to illness. I'm just going to go ahead and call this one right now: worst free-agent signing in history.
Loved: The 46-yard reception and 31-yard touchdown catch by Minnesota's Sidney Rice(notes) against Buffalo in the first quarter. Rice went back and fought for underthrown passes on both plays. Finally, Rice is looking like the dynamic playmaker from last season.
Loathed: The 49ers' horrific tackling of the Packers' Donald Driver(notes), who had a 61-yard third-quarter touchdown catch and run. It was like watching a bumbling blooper reel, with five guys whiffing on their attempts. San Francisco coach Mike Singletary will lose his mind over that one in the film session.
Loved: Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's(notes) 46-yard catch and run touchdown against Chicago. He stiff-armed two defenders who should have made the tackle. You want an illustration of why big and fast freak wideouts (like Johnson) will always trump small and fast freak wideouts (like DeSean Jackson(notes))? Take a look at this play. That strength will pay dividends for a long time.
Loathed: Hearing that Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli invoked the name of Michael Vick(notes) when he was describing Lions quarterback Drew Stanton(notes). I don't care what he was getting at, that was absurd. I can't imagine how the evaluation skills of Marinelli and Matt Millen didn't work out well for the Lions.
Loved: The third-quarter corner blitz by Denver's Champ Bailey(notes) that took down Kansas City's Matt Cassel(notes). It was only the third sack of Bailey's career, which is surprise considering his athleticism. Twelve years into his career, he's still a top-five cornerback in the league.
Loathed: The Redskins' flat effort against the Giants. Say what you want about defensive injuries and schematic fit – Mike Shanahan's first season in Washington has been monumentally unimpressive. Remember when some people thought Shanahan and Donovan McNabb(notes) made this an instant playoff team?
Loved: Chiefs running back Thomas Jones(notes) pushing for the 10,000-yard rushing mark for his career. It's a stunning feat when you consider that he averaged a backup-worthy 125 carries a year during his first four seasons. He's a tough and unselfish player who is loved by teammates.
Loathed: Watching Titans wideout Randy Moss(notes). Since leaving the Patriots, he has reverted to his form when he was a forgotten man with the Raiders. Moss should have kept his mouth shut in New England. Talk about an all-time misstep.