INDIANAPOLIS — I've covered the Indianapolis Colts since Tony Dungy's first season, and this is the first time I've been in a 6-5 locker room. Strange, indeed.
The Colts are in first place, but it doesn't feel like it. They've got one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but he looks uncomfortable. They have a huge home game Sunday against a 3-8 Dallas Cowboys team that fired its coach midseason, and yet I'm not sure the Colts will win.
“It's going to be difficult, it's going to take hard work, it may not be as smooth or easy as it may have looked in the past,” Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. “It's never been easy, but it may have looked easy in the past.”
It looked incredibly easy in the past. The Colts' record after 11 games the last five years, in reverse chronological order: 11-0, 8-3, 9-2, 10-1 and 11-0. This team has not been the same since management decided a shot at a perfect season was irrelevant last year. They lost to the Jets on purpose (or declined to win on purpose, if you prefer) last December and they've had trouble winning ever since.
Beginning with that Jets game, the Colts are 8-8 in their last 16 games. That's the definition of average.
I've leaned most of this season toward figuring the Colts will right the ship, win the AFC South (where they're tied with Jacksonville) and maybe find that playoff magic that led to a Super Bowl championship after the 2006 season.
I'm not leaning that way quite so hard now. This looks more like a lost season every week. At the very least, it's a strange season.
“Last year, we had a lot of close games we could have lost and we ended up winning those games,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “This year, we've had a lot of close games and ended up losing those games. That's just part of the National Football League and this is how it goes sometimes.”
Freeney says no one is pushing the panic button. Like the rest of his teammates, he points out that the Colts remain in first place, control their own destiny and have time to regain a spot in the postseason picture.
But is it possible that the Colts' decade of excellence has reached its tipping point toward a downward slide, where playoff berths can no longer be assumed, where games in late December mean something beyond a debate over whether to rest players? Or can this season be chalked up to tough breaks on injuries and, no matter how it ends, all will be better with healthy players next year?
The truth is it's too early to tell which of the theories holds more weight. There's enough talent, when healthy, for the Colts to contend as long as Manning is upright. But all the great teams had their slides, from the Green Bay Packers of lore to the Tom Landry-led Cowboys to the San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana/Steve Young.
Linebacker Gary Brackett, who might return to the lineup this week after missing three games with a toe injury, understands how this season feels different to the fans. He acknowledges it has a different feel inside the locker room, too.
“It's not something we're accustomed to with our recent success – seven years in a row with 12 wins,” Brackett said. “I think people kind of got spoiled by our success, not realizing how hard it is to win in the NFL. It's a tough place to play. Look at the parity in the league. Week to week, it's hard to pick a winner. That's the nature of the business.
“We have to continue to improve,” Brackett said. “The good thing is we're still tied in our division. We still have our destiny in our own hands.”
Facing the Cowboys in their current state might be the worst-possible opponent this side of a rematch with the Chargers. The Colts rarely face the Cowboys, and the switch from Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett as head coach adds more uncertainty to preparations.
While Dallas quarterback Tony Romo remains sidelined, Jon Kitna has been decent in his place. He's smart. He has some weapons, including Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Roy Williams. If he can avoid holding the ball too long and letting Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis tee off, he can move the football.
On offense, the Colts continue to struggle to run the football. While Mike Hart should be back this week, Joseph Addai is again doubtful.
The lack of a running game has helped trigger Manning's seven interceptions in the last two games. Without the Colts possessing even the threat of the run, defenses can lock in on Colts receivers and force Manning to hit the covered man. Some of his picks have been flukes – the NFL told Colts coach Jim Caldwell that officials missed a pass interference call on one Chargers' interception-return score – but Manning has also felt the pressure of carrying a team on his shoulders and forced passes where they have no business going.
“We're throwing the ball a lot,” Manning said. “Somebody said we're on pace for 600-plus attempts. That's more than anybody would have said they'd like to throw this year, more than I'd like to throw from a goal standpoint.”
Manning said the offense must become more “three-dimensional,” with the option of a drop-back pass, a run or a play-action pass on first down. Recently, the Colts have been decidedly one-dimensional, with the running game all but nonexistent.
Despite all their problems, the Colts still control their destiny.
“Most times at 6-5 you're behind the eight ball in the division,” Manning said. “Other teams in our division have had some of the same things that happened to us, getting on a win streak, losing a few in a row. The team that finds consistency down the stretch will win the division. Hopefully that's us.”
Any other year, the Colts would have this race in the bag.
This is not any other year. Colts fans must hope – and perhaps pray – that this is not the new normal.