Colts still searching for answers to make playoff push
INDIANAPOLIS — Time is running out on the Indianapolis Colts.
The defense is still getting torched. The offense is still struggling. The last two opponents have each returned one punt for a touchdown. Now, heading into a pivotal AFC South game against Houston, there are even questions about which quarterback will start.
Andrew Luck said Monday he hopes to return to practice this week, though it's unclear if he'll be cleared to play this weekend. Backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck injured his neck and ribs during a blowout loss at Pittsburgh, and the Colts said he reinjured those ribs in Sunday's 35-point rout at Jacksonville.
Amid all the turmoil, Indy's players are focused on one thing.
"Win. That's the mentality," Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams said Monday. "I hate to say it's a must win, but if we want to be in it (the playoffs), we have to win."
Indy (6-7) has spent the past few weeks talking incessantly about the need to finish strong and build momentum for a possible postseason run, and the Colts still control their own destiny. In fact, a victory Sunday would almost assure the Colts of a third consecutive division crown.
But if they don't protect their home turf against an opponent that has lost 13 straight in Indy, the Colts' postseason hopes would take a major hit. And they know it.
"They understand the circumstances, we all do. Playing at home, division rival, division game, division on the line, I don't know how you cannot get up for this contest," Pagano said. "These guys will show up, I promise you. They will prepare, they will work, and they will show up and they will play their butts off on Sunday."
Effort hasn't been the problem. Execution has.
Part of the struggle this season can be traced to injuries.
With Luck down, Hasselbeck hurting, left tackle Anthony Castonzo out with an injured right knee and an offensive line in flux, not much has gone right.
Luck has missed four straight games with a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle, and appears ready to take the first step in a two-step process to be cleared to play.
Pagano only said the team's medical staff has not informed him of any impending change about Luck's practice status. Meanwhile, Luck said his workout regimen of running, throwing, running and lifting intensified Monday.
"I do not feel like I'm 100 percent back from prior injury," Luck said. "From what I understand with an internal organ, you have two kidneys, so you can't play with one that's bum."
Hasselbeck uncharacteristically did not speak with reporters after the loss at Jacksonville or Monday, but was seen in the locker room with his left arm in a sling. Pagano said the sling was intended to prevent spasms that have bothered Hasselbeck since he first hurt the ribs.
The 40-year-old Hasselbeck, 4-2 as a starter this season, is expected to miss Wednesday's practice but should return Thursday.
If neither Luck nor Hasselbeck play, Charlie Whitehurst, claimed off waivers from Tennessee on Nov. 12, would probably start Indy's most critical game of the season.
The news isn't all bad.
Castonzo said he could return to practice this week and may return to action Sunday. So could inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who has missed the last two games with hamstring and rib injuries.
But in Indy, there are bigger concerns than who plays and who doesn't.
Over the past four games, the Colts have averaged 62.5 yards rushing and 2.7 yards per carry. They've struggled in the red zone, scored just 75 total points over that span, and their only touchdown Sunday came on Robert Mathis' fumble recovery in the end zone on a botched Jacksonville snap.
Indy has been outscored 96-26 in its last two games, both on the road.
And, of course, the speculation about the future of Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson continues to swirl.
Pagano doesn't care about any of it. He just wants to find a solution in time to make one final playoff push.
"When I spent 26 days in the hospital in 2012, that was tough. That was tough. This is nothing. I'm holding up great," Pagano said, referring to his battle with leukemia. "(Stress) comes with this job, but we all know what we signed up for."
NOTES: Outside linebacker Erik Walden (foot) and cornerback Greg Toler (knee) also are expected to return to practice Wednesday after missing Sunday's game.
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