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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (14-1) at Buffalo (5-10)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Indianapolis Colts might hear some booing from the audience in attendance for their Week 17 tilt against the Buffalo Bills, though unlike last week, the catcalls will not come from their own home crowd.
Jim Caldwell's club will finish the 2009 campaign within the seemingly unfriendly confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the struggling Bills should give patrons plenty to be bitter about.
Buffalo, which long ago relinquished any chance of ending a postseason drought that dates back to the 1999 season, clinched sole possession of last place in the AFC East with last Sunday's 31-3 loss at the Atlanta Falcons. The first NFL start in the career of Bills quarterback Brian Brohm - pressed into service due to ankle injuries suffered by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards in the previous week's defeat against the Patriots - did not go especially well. The Louisville product completed just 17-of-29 passes for 146 yards with two interceptions in the loss.
Brohm's stay in the starting lineup will apparently be short-lived, as Fitzpatrick is expected to be back under center for the Indianapolis game. Fitzpatrick has started seven games for Buffalo this season, going 3-4 in those games, and has thrown six touchdown passes and 10 interceptions on the year.
Fitzpatrick and his teammates will be attempting to send interim head coach Perry Fewell out with a bang in what is likely to be his final game in that role. Fewell, also the team's defensive coordinator, is 2-4 since taking over for the fired Dick Jauron.
If the Colts approach their Week 17 game the way the team played Week 16, Fewell will have a good chance of walking off the field a winner.
In a situation that has been debated ad nauseum on sports radio and TV shows over the past few weeks, Indianapolis essentially forfeited its chance of a perfect season when Caldwell pulled most of his key starters in the second half of a home game with the New York Jets.
Ahead 15-10 at the 5:36 mark of the third quarter, Caldwell replaced quarterback Peyton Manning with rookie Curtis Painter. On the second drive of his NFL career (the first resulted in a three-and-out), Painter fumbled on a blind-side sack by the Jets' Calvin Pace, with the ball fallen on by defensive end Marques Douglas in the end zone to give Gang Green a critical touchdown.
Things would only get worse for Indy from there, as the Colts saw their perfect season and 25-game regular season winning streak end in 29-15 fashion, much to the consternation of the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd and Manning, who looked visibly annoyed on the sideline. Painter, who figures to see considerable action again on Sunday, finished 4-of-11 for 44 yards with the fumble and an INT.
If they find a way to beat the Bills for a seventh straight time, the Colts organization will have posted its best single-season record in team history, surpassing the winning percentage (.929) of the 1968 Baltimore Colts, who went 13-1.
The Bills hold a 34-30-1 edge in their series with the Colts, but have lost six straight to Indy since last defeating them in 1999. Indianapolis was a 17-16 home winner when the clubs last met, in 2003, and also prevailed in the last meeting at the RCA Dome (42-26) in 2006. Indianapolis is 3-0 in Buffalo since last losing there in 1999. The Bills and Colts met twice a season as members of the AFC East between 1970 and 2001.
The Colts' Caldwell and Bills'Fewell will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
With Manning (4405 passing yards, 33 TD, 15 INT) likely to start but play a limited number of series, it will probably be up to Painter to again try to move the Colts offense for the majority of the day. With top targets like Reggie Wayne (95 receptions, 10 TD) and tight end Dallas Clark (93 receptions, 10 TD) also expected to be limited, the Bills should see a lot of secondary targets such as Hank Baskett (3 receptions) and tight ends Tom Santi (8 receptions) and Gijon Robinson (9 receptions). Baskett had two catches for 16 yards against the Jets last week, the most productive day as a Colt for the former Eagle. Painter was sacked twice last week after Manning had been dropped just 10 times in 14-and-a-half contests. In the running game, ex- Michigan star Mike Hart (42 rushing yards, 3 receptions) and usual return man Chad Simpson (102 rushing yards, 2 TD) should take on sizeable roles, with Joseph Addai (828 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 13 TD) and Donald Brown (285 rushing yards, 3 TD, 11 receptions) likely to be limited for precautionary reasons. Indianapolis is No. 1 in NFL passing offense (292.2 yards per game), fewest sacks allowed (12), fewest fumbles lost (4), and is tied for the league lead in touchdown passes (34), along with the Saints, but is last in the league in rushing offense (84.6 yards per game).
The Colts will try to establish their running game on Sunday against a Buffalo team that comes in ranked last in NFL rushing defense (165.1 yards per game). A revolving door of linebackers hasn't helped matters, and the play of tackles Marcus Stroud (55 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kyle Williams (59 tackles, 3 sacks) has been nothing to write home about either. Among the currently healthy LBs, middle man Paul Posluzsny (99 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) has received the strongest reviews. The Bills rank among NFL leaders in interceptions with 26, though the man with the biggest individual number, rookie free safety and recently-named Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd (45 tackles, 9 INT), is out for the year with a groin injury. Safeties George Wilson (98 tackles, 4 INT, 2 sacks) and Donte Whitner (57 tackles, 2 INT) are among the top playmakers remaining in the secondary. End and top pass rusher Aaron Schobel (54 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT) had three sacks last week, his best game of the year. In addition to their struggles against the run, the Bills have forced a league-worst four lost fumbles on the season.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Fitzpatrick (1267 passing yards, 134 rushing yards, 1 TD) will try to breathe some life into an offense that has managed just 10.5 points per game over its last four outings, though the fact that the Harvard product himself presided over three of those games does not exactly speak well of his prospects. Buffalo does have some offensive playmakers, including steady running back Fred Jackson (850 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 3 TD) and wideouts Terrell Owens (51 receptions, 4 TD) and Lee Evans (40 receptions, 6 TD), but the work of a second-rate offensive line has been the club's offensive undoing for most of the year. Emblematic of this fact is that rookie Andre Ramsey is expected to make his second straight start at the all-important left tackle position, with Jonathan Scott (ankle) the team's latest OL lynch pin expected to be on the shelf. Buffalo enters Week 17 ranked last in third-down conversion percentage (25.0).
The Bills would be wise to hand the ball early and often to Jackson, given the fact that the Colts were as weak as kittens against the Jets running game last week, especially after middle linebacker Gary Brackett (96 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and most of the team's top defensive personnel was removed from action. The Jets piled up 202 ground yards in the contest, as fill-in linebackers like Ramon Humber (25 tackles) struggled to handle Thomas Jones and a strong New York run-blocking group. In the secondary, safeties Jamie Silva (20 tackles) and Aaron Francisco (12 tackles) were among those who played extended minutes with the defense, a trend that should continue this week. With ends Dwight Freeney (24 tackles, 13.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (37 tackles, 9.5 sacks) among those likely to play limited-to-no minutes against Buffalo, veteran Raheem Brock (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is among those who could spend most of the game trying to get to Fitzpatrick.
This game is the exact reason that most fantasy championships are set for Week 16, not that it helped owners of Manning and company last Sunday. You simply can't feel comfortable rolling with any of the Colts' principles here, though the fact that Indianapolis could be featuring backups on defense makes Bills starters like Jackson, Owens, Evans and kicker Rian Lindell more attractive. The Buffalo defense isn't a bad play either.
Though the Colts personnel will get more attention, a comparison of the opening day starting lineups of both teams to the players who will take the field here, shows that Indianapolis and Buffalo will be featuring an almost- equal number of backups. Buffalo's injury situation started to get out of hand some time in September, which means the Bills' No. 2s have had much more time to work together in meaningful situations, but that doesn't mean Buffalo has a wealth more talent than the Indianapolis second-string. The Bills should be able to win here mainly because Fitzpatrick will be better than Painter, but the result will be in doubt late.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 18, Colts 17
12/31 12:20:12 ET
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