INDIANAPOLIS — Colts coach Jim Caldwell sees Sunday’s game as one more chance to get things right.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett calls it a new opportunity.
Good luck trying to figure out which one is fighting for the playoffs and which one is auditioning to keep his job. There is a reason for it: Both coaches are trying to send their surprisingly struggling teams the same message.
“It’s really about coming to work every day and being your best,” Garrett said. “Anybody who is involved in football understands that. To win, it takes everyone to be at their best.”
When schedule makers booked this date for Dallas and Indianapolis, that’s what they thought they’d get — a potential Super Bowl preview.
And why not? The Cowboys and Colts were two of three NFL teams to post winning records each season from 2005 to 2009. Indy was the defending AFC champion, and Dallas was the preseason pick to win the NFC title.
But things haven’t worked out.
Dallas opened the season 1-7, bad enough to warrant a midseason coaching change that elevated the younger, more discipline-oriented Garrett to interim coach. The Cowboys have gone 2-1 since Garrett took over and have finally started playing like the team most people expected.
Promoting Garrett has made a world of difference.
“He wants to have his stamp on everything, he wants to know what’s going on with everything,” quarterback Jon Kitna said. “He has strong convictions about what he wants to get done, and those convictions come off as confidence in our meetings and practice.”
Back in Indianapolis, things haven’t gone as planned, either.
While Colts are in their customary spot atop the AFC South, Indy (6-5) will finish with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2002. Peyton Manning is coming off a month in which he threw nine interceptions and was sacked eight times. Fans worry about the lack of a running game, the poor pass protection and the fact that Indy has lost back-to-back meaningful games with a healthy Manning for the first time since November 2007.
Now, with Manning and the offense struggling, they must face the resurgent Cowboys.
Players insist their goals are still there, it’s just different from what fans have come to expect in Indy.
“We’ve had these long winning streaks before and people get used to that, but we’ve had three or four times since I’ve been here where we’ve had to reel off eight straight wins,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “What we need is some consistency.”
Indianapolis could blame injuries for all the problems, but the concerns go deeper.
Without much of a ground game, the Colts high-powered offense hasn’t been the same.
Manning has already thrown 486 passes and is on pace for a career-high. He’s also had to throw quicker than usual, which has not allowed the Colts to stretch the field as they prefer, and for the third straight week he’ll face a disruptive 3-4 defense that has beaten Manning before.
Another loss might sound alarms outside the locker room and could put Indy’s playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
But Caldwell, as he often does, is selling his team on a different perspective.
“I was reading a couple of articles a while ago. They talked about there is a number of people who come into our country that were new citizens of the country, and how they have prospered from an economic standpoint,” Caldwell said. “They start their own businesses and the growth and development and yet we have people that live in our country that seem to be stagnant. The reason being is that the person coming in looks at this opportunity a lot differently than those that have been here for a long time. So it just depends on how you look at the opportunity you have.”
All the Colts have to do is take advantage of their chances.
The Colts play three of their final five games at home, have three division games left and only one game against a team with a winning record.
Only two NFC teams have a worse record than Dallas, which has been all but eliminated from the playoff chase and would end its streak of consecutive winning seasons with another loss.
If Indy has a strong finish, it could still win the division, play at home in the playoffs and make everything seem normal.
“The team that finds some consistency down here in the stretch, I think, is the team that is probably going to win the division. We certainly hope that is us,” Manning said. “We have to establish that consistency, and the only way to do that is to take that first step. Hopefully, we can translate good work on the practice field to the playing field.”