Game plan: Colts at Falcons

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Nov. 21, 2015) – Five areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Falcons at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome (CBS4, 1 p.m.):

Jockeying in the AFC South: It seems like a month, not less than two weeks, since the Colts handled Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium. And a lot has happened since that 27-24 victory. Along with losing Andrew Luck for at least the next month with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle, the Colts have seen the weak AFC South tighten at the top. Credit two victories by Jacksonville – yes, including one at Baltimore the officials totally screwed up – and Houston’s upset at previously unbeaten Cincinnati. If the Colts lose at Atlanta and the Texans are unable to handle a home meeting with the New York Jets, we’ll have a three-way tie at 4-6 atop the division. Or, if you’re the pessimistic sort, the Colts, Texans and Jaguars will be two games out of last place in the AFC South, currently in possession of 2-8 Tennessee.

“It could be worse, right?” Chuck Pagano said. “We control our own destiny and that’s what’s great right now. Again, you look at the record and all that stuff, I really don’t care.

“It’s what we do moving forward. Again, we’re not going to apologize for anything because the easiest way to get in (the playoffs) is to win your division. That is the No. 1 goal. It’s still attainable.”

The next step comes against the Falcons, who have dropped three of four after a 5-0 start.

It’s Hasselbeck’s offense: In all likelihood, the Colts’ playoff aspirations are in Matt Hasselbeck’s hands for at least the next month. He was up to the task when a shoulder injury sidelined Andrew Luck earlier this season, keeping the team afloat by directing wins over Jacksonville and Houston. Now, we’re looking at a more extended reliance on the NFL’s oldest active quarterback as Luck is out with kidney and abdominal injuries. In case you’ve forgotten, Hasselbeck is 40.

With age, though, comes experience and perspective. Hasselbeck realizes he isn’t capable of carrying the team as Luck has at times. “I know I have limitations,” he said.

So does coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Look for him to play to Hasselbeck’s strengths, which include short drops and quick throws. Look for Hasselbeck to spread the ball around in the passing game and lean on running backs Frank Gore and Ahmad Bradshaw. The overriding objective for Hasselbeck is ball security. Against the Jaguars and Titans, he passed for three touchdowns with zero interceptions. Without Luck, this offense isn’t built to play from behind.

“Everybody has some things that they do well,” Chudzinski said. “Matt is a guy who can do a lot really well. He’s real flexible.”

Pick your poison: Virtually every team features a game-breaking offensive player, and defensive coordinators plan accordingly. The Falcons are two-fisted with their approach, and that undoubtedly has caused Greg Manusky more than a few sleepless nights.

If Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown isn’t the NFL’s top receiver, it’s Atlanta’s Julio Jones. He leads the league with 80 receptions and is second to Brown with 1,029 yards. Running back Devonta Freeman was little more than an afterthought as a rookie a year ago with 248 rushing yards. His 721 yards thus far trail only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (961) and Arizona’s Chris Johnson (734). His nine rushing TDs lead the league, as do his 48 rushing first downs.

“They’ve got a ton of weapons,” Pagano said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge.”

Manusky is expected to assign Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis the task of shadowing Jones much of the afternoon. The dilemma is whether he should keep a safety deep to help Davis, or bring a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to bolter work against Freeman.

Good luck.

Defensive concerns: Since we’re on the topic of the Colts’ defense, red flags are flapping in the breeze. While the offense is without its quarterback (Luck), the defense is without its leader. Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams, whose five interceptions share the league lead, is out with an ankle injury. Pagano said “it’s all hands on deck” in dealing with Adams’ absence, but Colt Anderson is the likely replacement in the starting lineup.

Compounding things is the earlier loss of rookie tackle Henry Anderson to a season-ending knee injury. He and Adams were up-the-middle factors, but no longer.

That doesn’t bode well against a Falcons’ offense that ranks No. 5 in yards per game (402.2) and third-down conversions (45 percent), and No. 8 in points (25.4). Quarterback Matt Ryan has been erratic (12 touchdowns, seven interceptions), but is capable of exploiting the Colts’ suspect secondary if the Falcons are able to establish Freeman as a threat.

Ryan should be able to operate in a clean passing pocket. The Colts have just 13 sacks. Only the Falcons (10) and New York Giants (12) have fewer.

Don’t be stubborn with Gore: Hasselbeck said a quarterback’s best friend is pass protection. Next on the list? A reliable running game. That’s Gore’s wheelhouse. He’s coming off a 28-carry game against Denver, and history tells us the more work gets, the better the end result. His teams are 9-0 when he gets at least 28 carries and 16-1 when he gets at least 25.

Could there be a heavier load for Gore while Luck is out? The team has had him on a pitch count this season while trying to keep him fresh for the stretch run, but that might be eased.

“I think everybody has got to pick up their game,” Pagano said. “If he’s rolling like (against Denver) and we’re staying balanced and gaining yards and he feels good, then we’re going to do what we have to do to win ball games.”

However, be smart with Gore. The Falcons’ run defense ranks No. 3 in yards per game (88.9) and No. 4 in yards per attempt (3.7).

It’s smart to feed Gore, and backup Ahmad Bradshaw, the football when the run game’s working. It’s foolish to stick with it when it’s running into a brick wall.

Prediction: Falcons 27, Colts 23.

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