Colts QB Hasselbeck looks for his third win in Luck’s absence
Coming out of the same bye week, the Indianapolis Colts are down a quarterback, and the Atlanta Falcons are just down.
Both teams still find themselves in favorable position in their postseason races, but given their current circumstances, a win Sunday in Atlanta would help calm any mounting uncertainty.
The Colts (4-5) preceded the bye with a 27-24 home win over Denver on Nov. 8 and are tied with Houston atop the AFC South, but they revealed two days later that the win came at a cost. Andrew Luck will miss two to six weeks with a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle. The quarterback finished the game against the Broncos, but it’s back to Matt Hasselbeck for the foreseeable future.
"We’ve won with Matt, and we’ll win again with Matt," coach Chuck Pagano said. "There are not many guys winning football games with backup quarterbacks right now. But he’s a great leader, got great experience, there’s nothing he has not seen, still got arm talent, can still make all the throws."
Hasselbeck has accounted for two of the Colts’ wins this season, beating Jacksonville in overtime on Oct. 4 and winning in Houston four days later when Luck was out with a shoulder injury. The 40-year-old former Pro Bowler completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 495 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers in those games, both of which were decided by one possession.
His coming starts, however, will be with a new offensive coordinator after the Colts replaced Pep Hamilton with Rob Chudzinski on Nov. 3. The move came a day after their 29-26 loss in Carolina, so Chudzinski had only one game with Luck before the injury.
The offense at least took care of the ball in the coordinator’s debut, not committing a turnover after having seven giveaways in the previous two games. For the season, they still have a minus-7 mark.
Hasselbeck, unlike Luck at times, has shown a maturity that keeps Indianapolis out of such trouble. Maturity with a side of levity.
"I know my limitations, so that might be my strength," Hasselbeck said. "But I have a lot of limitations."
That might be OK when facing Atlanta (6-3), against which opposing offenses haven’t had to do much to win lately. The Falcons have dropped consecutive games, including a 17-16 loss in San Francisco on Nov. 8. They fell 23-20 at home to Tampa Bay a week before that, and those two under-.500 teams averaged 304.0 yards of total offense.
After a 5-0 start, they’ve dropped three of four while averaging 16.8 points with nine turnovers, so the offense feels it has a debt to repay.
"We just need to get back to executing in the way we are capable of," Matt Ryan said. "I think areas that we need to improve are third downs and red zone. In order to be better in those situations, to me it comes down to making the plays when you have the opportunity."
Ryan’s numbers haven’t been bad on the skid — he’s thrown for 700 yards and completed 74.4 percent of his passes with three TDs and one interception — but the rushing attack did nothing in the latest loss, gaining 17 yards on 14 carries. On the losing streak, Atlanta is averaging 2.88 yards per carry after managing 4.36 in its first seven.
Devonta Freeman, who’s remained a big part of the passing game in the last two weeks despite picking up 3.03 yards per carry after three straight 100-yard efforts, said Atlanta is exploring more options.
"I just know on Monday we did a couple of periods with fast tempo and stuff," Freeman said. "I don’t really know how our coaching staff really wants to go, if they want to go with the fast pace. Whatever they decide to do, we’ve got to go out and execute and make it happen."
Pagano isn’t letting two games erase what the Falcons did on the ground prior to the setbacks. Freeman picked up 5.30 yards per rush in his first five starts.
"Anytime you’re able to produce like they’re producing on the ground, it just opens everything up in the pass game and the play-action pass game," Pagano said.
The Colts struggled against the run last season and at times this year, but they’ve done a good job lately, limiting the Broncos to 35 yards on 14 carries while posting a 3.50-per-carry mark in their last two.
The Indianapolis secondary might be the more vulnerable place to attack, and the Falcons could have wide receiver Leonard Hankerson back to complement the always-dangerous Julio Jones. The Colts’ pass defense is the league’s fifth worst. Injuries have played a role in that, and this week is no different. Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams is trying to overcome a left ankle injury that forced him to miss the second half against Denver.
"I don’t really look at the numbers because they fluctuate throughout the year," cornerback Vontae Davis said. "To me, it’s all about play our best ball at the right time of year. We’ve got a way to go, but we are getting better."