Indy's problems in the passing game have been magnified by inconsistent play up front. General manager Bill Polian was critical of the line after last season's loss to New Orleans in the Super Bowl, but little has been done to upgrade the unit. In fact, it is arguably weaker this year following the release last March of guard Ryan Lilja, whose injury issues had scared management into believing that the then fifth-year veteran had topped out. Instead he has been the best lineman for the AFC West--leading Chiefs. "That was a position where we felt like maybe we had some younger players who could step up and play pretty well," Polian said on his radio show last week. "That hasn't been the case."
In place of Lilja on the right side, the Colts have, at times, started a former Arena2 player (Kyle DeVan) and an undrafted rookie (Jeff Linkenbach). During one play on Sunday, Dallas nosetackle Jay Ratliff blew past right guard David Pollak and nearly dropped Manning before he could make a handoff. Indianapolis is also still trying to find a capable replacement at left tackle for Tarik Glenn, who retired three years ago.
When Manning stepped onto the stage for his postgame press conference on Sunday, the sole of one of his brown lace-ups slipped on some debris. He caught himself before falling. Next week against the Titans, he will try to do the same with the 6--6 Colts. Despite trailing Jacksonville by one game in the AFC South, Indianapolis can still earn its ninth straight playoff berth by winning its final four games.
"When you get on a little turnover stretch, the easy thing to do is become gun-shy and just stop throwing it," says Manning, who is averaging 44.5 passes a game and is on pace to break Drew Bledsoe's NFL-record 691 attempts. "I can assure you I won't do that, I haven't done that, and we'll continue to throw. I just need to make better decisions and better throws."
The Colts will win or lose this year with their passing game. If Manning's decisions improve, it's hard to believe that the mojo and the mystique, both the team's and the quarterback's, won't be far behind.
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Peter King forecasts the full slate of games in the Weekend Pickoff, Fridays at SI.com/nfl