There must be something about the Indianapolis Colts facing the Atlanta Falcons that brings out the backup quarterback. The teams only play once every four years, but this Sunday will mark the second-straight meeting in which the Colts will be without their starting signal-caller.
This Sunday, of course, the Colts will be without Andrew Luck, who will travel with the team but who is still dealing with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle that will keep him out for an extended period of time. In his place, Matt Hasselbeck will make his third start of the season for Indianapolis with the team's playoff hopes now riding on the veteran's shoulders. Back in 2011, however, the Colts also faced the Falcons with a backup quarterback, as starter Peyton Manning missed what wound up being the entire season with a neck injury. In his place started Curtis Painter, and let's just say that things didn't go too well (the Colts didn't score a single offensive point that day).
All-time, however, this series has been totally dominated by the Colts, who are 13-2 in their history against Atlanta. Those numbers include a Thanksgiving Day victory, 31-13, the last time the Colts played in Atlanta (in 2007). While it's not quite Thanksgiving yet, the Colts will look to replicate that success on the field this Sunday.
It won't be easy, though, particularly without their franchise quarterback. The Flacons started the season 5-0 but are since just 1-3, including losses in their last two games. Atlanta is coming off of their bye week just like the Colts are, however, and both teams will be looking to right their season. The Colts took a step forward with their best game of the year against the Broncos, but now they'll be playing without Luck. The Colts will look to keep up their form from that last game, while the Falcons will look to regain their form from earlier in the season. Here's a complete preview of the game:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The Colts' offense has had a lot of issues this year, but perhaps it can be summed up by saying this: they need to play smart and protect the football. When they have done that, the unit has looked much better, and the offense did that in two games under Matt Hasselbeck earlier this season. Now, Hasselbeck will be making another start, and they need to replicate that success from earlier this year. The oldest quarterback in the NFL, Hasselbeck is smart and knows what he's doing, and he doesn't make too many mistakes that could wind up as turnovers. The Colts need him to keep that up, and his quick release (third-fastest in the NFL this year, per PFF) should help out against a bad Falcons pass rush. The Colts also need to keep up their offensive balance. Atlanta boasts one of the NFL's best run defenses (giving up just 88.9 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the league), but the Colts can't get away from Frank Gore and the running game. I realize that I normally put a specific matchup here, but I think the biggest thing for the Colts on Sunday is to stay balanced, protect the football, and play smart. If they can do that, Matt Hasselbeck, Frank Gore, and company will absolutely be able to keep this team in the game.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Falcons Offense
The Falcons' offense features three key players to pay attention to: quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Devonta Freeman, and wide receiver Julio Jones. Ryan is fifth in the league in passing yards, Freeman is third in the league in rushing yards, and Jones is second in the league in receiving yards. So if you're wondering about Atlanta's offense, those three are the guys to focus on. In this section, though, the matchup that we'll highlight is the matchup of Colts cornerback Vontae Davis versus Julio Jones, one of the league's top wideouts. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said on Thursday that the Colts will have Davis shadow Jones around the field for the most part, which is the smart thing to do. Still, Jones presents a unique threat. He has caught 80 passes for 1,029 yards and six scores through nine games this year, averaging 12.9 yards per reception. He has had 13 plays of more than 20 yards and has notched 50 first downs, also racking up 395 yards after the catch. In every category, he ranks among the NFL's best, and he's actually on a pace that ranks among the best of all-time. Jones is currently on pace to catch 142 passes for 1,829 yards. Marvin Harrison holds the record for most single-season receptions with 143, and Jones would finish in second place if he keeps up the pace. Calvin Johnson holds the record for most single-season receiving yards with 1,964, and Jones would finish in third place if he keeps up his current pace. In other words, he's on a historic pace. That doesn't mean that he'll keep it up, but through nine games he has been dominant.
That puts the pressure on Vontae Davis to defend him, especially with a Colts team that struggles to generate pass rush and against a quarterback who can make the throws he needs to. This is a true matchup of each unit's best, as the Colts will pit their number one corner against the Falcons' number one receiver, two of the best in the league at their respective positions. If Davis can't keep Jones in check (realizing he's going to make some plays but not letting him run all over the place), that will be a huge boost to this team. They'll still need to stop Devonta Freeman, but the Colts need Davis to win the matchup against Jones.
Why the Colts Will Win
Atlanta is struggling. In their first five games of the season, they averaged 32.4 points per game, but they have averaged just 16.75 points per game in their last four games and just lost to a Blaine Gabbert-led 49ers team before the bye week. It hasn't been easy for them recently, which is good news for this Colts team. Even though they'll be playing with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, that doesn't mean they're a bad team or will just roll over and give up, as Hasselbeck led them to two wins earlier in the season against the Jaguars and the Texans. Frank Gore has had a good season as well, while the defense has been solid when not put in bad situations (because of turnovers). If Atlanta hasn't gotten their issues figured out, a Colts win wouldn't just be possible but also likely.
Why the Colts Won't Win
If the Falcons team that showed up in the first five weeks of the season shows up this week, it could be a high-scoring game. That's the last thing the Colts need with their backup quarterback in the game, as they would much rather get a lead and run out the clock - or at least be in a close game. But playing catch-up or trying to outscore Atlanta? That's probably not going to work out too well. Then there's also the deal with turnovers, something that has plagued Indy's offense this year. Matt Hasselbeck remained turnover-free earlier this year, but if the Colts aren't careful with the football and smart on Sunday night, they'll be handing the ball back to a potent Falcons offense, which isn't exactly the recipe for success.
I do think this game will be a close one. I think the Falcons' offense is good enough to put up some points against the Colts' defense, but I also think that Matt Hasselbeck, Frank Gore, T.Y. Hilton, and the rest of the offense can score some points too if they protect the football. I expect the Colts to keep it close, but in the end I think the Falcons find a way to get it done at home.