Two years ago, the revitalized Indianapolis Colts were a Hail Mary pass away from the Super Bowl. Last year, they started 4-0 and made the playoffs for the second straight season.
This year, they're 0-5 and looking for all the world like Chicken Little.
The sky seemingly has fallen on the Colts, losers of 13 of their last 18 games, and especially on quarterback Jim Harbaugh. Last Sunday, for the third time in five games, Harbaugh gave way to backup Paul Justin.
Justin played briefly in the first half against the New York Jets because Harbaugh had bruised his hip. But Justin played the second half because Harbaugh was taking the Colts' offense nowhere.
By the time the 16-12 loss was over, coach Lindy Infante wasn't sure who would play when the Colts go prime time next Sunday night in Pittsburgh. But Justin's 12-point, 173-yard passing performance in relief couldn't hurt his chances.
"We were looking for a spark," Infante said of the second-half switch to Justin. "It was real hard on me to do it, but I felt we had to do something. We were floundering out there. I don't think it was Jimmy's fault."
The Indianapolis offense has been on the skids all season. The Colts didn't produce their first offensive touchdown until Week 4, and then they blew a 26-0 lead in Buffalo, losing, 37-35.
An offensive line burdened with two rookies has surrendered 22 sacks already. Harbaugh was so beaten up in the opener, he pulled himself and created a minor furor. Now, he may not have the option.
To top it off, New York running back Adrian Murrell said this year's Colts remind him of last year's 1-15 Jets.
No team that has started 0-5 has made the playoffs.
Cut off at the pass
The Green Bay Packers' offensive frustration reached a flash point late in the third quarter against Tampa Bay when second-year receiver Bill Schroeder short-armed a third-down pass from Brett Favre with a defender approaching fast.
Favre felt it was a catchable pass and screamed at Schroeder as they came off the field after the play. Favre had seen an 18-point lead cut to seven -- and about to be cut to five -- when he cut loose.
"I just told him we need to catch that ball," Favre said. "If we catch that ball, maybe we're not in the situation we were in [hanging on at the end]. He's not the only guy, though. I made mistakes, too."
On the sideline, veteran receiver Antonio Freeman intervened. "I said it was my fault. I should have caught the easy ball the play before," Freeman said. "I told Bill: 'It's not your fault. I'll take the blame for this one.' If there was somebody [Favre] needed to be upset with, it was me. I need to make those plays."
Freeman, from Poly, had two touchdown catches Sunday along with two drops. He leads the team with five TD catches and seven drops.
Said coach Mike Holmgren: "Usually, when [Freeman] drops a pass, he takes his eyes off it. He's a very willing guy. He takes correction and criticism about as well as a player could take it."
Boiling over, Part II
Helmets were flying during and after the Cincinnati Bengals' 21-13 loss to Jacksonville. Quarterback Jeff Blake heaved his after the Bengals failed to convert a fourth-down run on the first series of the game. When it was over, wide receiver Carl Pickens slammed his against a wall. That was shortly after Blake missed Pickens with a fourth-down pass in the waning seconds.
"I see frustrated players on the field, and frustrated players make mistakes," coach Bruce Coslet said.
"You have to have poise. You've got to play with poise under pressure. We talk about that all the time and we're not doing that."
Arizona is clearly the hard-luck team of the NFL this season with four losses by a total of 11 points. Veteran kicker Kevin Butler has missed potential game-winning or game-preserving field goals the past two weeks. You figure it out: The Colts have four interceptions in five games but couldn't agree to contract terms with 36-year-old cornerback Eugene Daniel, who has three picks in two weeks with the Ravens. Then there are the Tennessee Oilers, who haven't picked off an opponent's pass yet. Worst rushing line in Week 6: The Oakland Raiders had 13 rushes for 13 yards. Meanwhile, Jacksonville had more rushing yards (160) than passing yards (148) for the first time since 1995. The New York Giants' defense is not just stopping teams (two TDs allowed the past three weeks), but it also scored a crucial touchdown against Dallas when Tito Wooten went 61 yards with an interception of Troy Aikman.
Best and worst
Best audition tape: Greg Davis, subbing for injured Chargers kicker John Carney, kicked six field goals, including a 43-yarder, to help beat the Raiders, 25-10. Davis was cut last month by the Vikings.
Worst coaching move: Bengals coach Bruce Coslet called a fake punt from his 14 in the first quarter. Worse yet, he called a run for Eric Bieniemy on fourth-and-16. Not surprisingly, Bieniemy came 10 yards short. Less surprisingly, the Jaguars scored three plays later. Even less surprisingly, the Bengals lost.
Best reprieve: Heath Shuler's fumble deep in Saints territory handed the hapless Bears a 17-13 fourth-quarter lead. But moments later, the Redskins reject heaved the longest touchdown pass in Saints history -- an 89-yarder to Randal Hill -- that pulled out a 20-17 victory.
Worst clock management: The Cowboys had the ball on their 36 with 48 seconds left against the Giants but got only one play off -- a 32-yard pass from Troy Aikman to Eric Bjornson. Offensive tackle Erik Williams was slow getting downfield and wasn't set when Aikman tried to spike the ball to set up a game-tying field-goal try.
Quickest change of heart: Last week, Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said Rick Mirer would be his quarterback the rest of the season as long as he progressed. Wannstedt gave the struggling Mirer one half -- and three points -- before giving him the hook for Erik Kramer.
Worst execution: The Saints-Bears game set the NFL back 50 years. Between the two teams, they converted four of 31 third-down plays (the Saints were 0-for-12) and combined for 18 penalties for 139 yards. Those teams couldn't win in the CFL.
Best breakout game: After five years with the Oilers, one of them a 1,000-yard campaign, running back Gary Brown sat out the 1996 season. In the first five games this year with the Chargers, his best game was a 58-yard effort against the Ravens. Sunday against the Raiders, he broke out for 181 yards on 36 carries.
Pub Date: 10/07/97