INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Tony Dungy wants the Colts to start playing like themselves.
The pristine offense, which was rolling earlier this season, has suddenly looked ordinary. A vastly improved defense struggled early Thursday night with penalties and breakdowns, and two losses in four games have kept the AFC South race close.
In Indianapolis, these slow starts are about as common as finding a Patriots fans, and it's something Dungy intends to correct over this week's extended break.
``It's probably a lack of continuity in practice more than anything,'' the Colts coach said Friday. ``I think we're kind of finding our way early and getting in a groove, but it has taken some time, so I hope we can get that changed.''
The good news is the Colts (9-2) have now won two games in five days and played well enough over the final three quarters Thursday night to roll past Atlanta 31-13.
But even in victory, the troubling trend continued.
Atlanta kept the ball for 19 plays and more than eight minutes on the game's opening possession, forced a three-and-out on Indy's first series, then got a 48-yard TD pass from Joey Harrington to Roddy White on the next Falcons possession.
Along the way, the Colts missed tackles, dropped passes, drew inexplicable penalties and allowed Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning to face constant pressure.
This is not typical Colts football.
``We kind of shot ourselves in the foot with mistakes, with guys on blocks, things like that,'' Dungy said. ``Things like that are what will come back to haunt you in real tight games.''
If the Colts didn't understand that lesson before this season, they certainly learned it in November.
At San Diego, Manning threw four interceptions in the first 16 minutes and the special teams allowed Darren Sproles to score twice on kick returns in the first quarter. The result was a 23-21 loss.
Last week, Adam Vinatieri missed two first-quarter field goals and Indianapolis failed to score a touchdown in the first half for the first time this season. It nearly cost them against Kansas City. Vinatieri eventually made the winning field goal with 3 seconds left to give Indy a 13-10 win.
After another sluggish first-quarter Thursday, some are asking what's wrong.
One explanation is injuries.
Manning has been working with a makeshift offense that has played the last several games without left tackle Tony Ugoh (neck) and perennial Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison (bruised left knee). Right tackle Ryan Diem was inactive Thursday after failing to finish each of the previous two games with knee and ankle injuries, and the Colts have already had two defensive starters - linebacker Rob Morris (knee) and defensive end Dwight Freeney (foot) - lost for the season.
While Dungy insists injuries are no excuse for inconsistent play, he acknowledged Friday the growing list of hurt players has made a difference at practice.
``It's kind of an attrition and how the practices have been forced to go,'' he said. ``We just haven't been able to practice in pads, and we're hoping we can do that this week.''
This week's long break could help.
Dungy gave players and coaches a three-day weekend, a badly needed respite after a five-game stretch which included two short weeks, a trip to the West Coast and a game against the NFL's best team, New England.
When everyone returns Monday, they're looking for a change.
Dungy hoped the last couple of weeks that Ugoh would play, and reiterated Friday that Harrison has targeted next week's Jacksonville game for his return.
Getting them back would be a huge boost.
It also could mean practicing in pads again, and Dungy hopes the combination helps the Colts regain the efficiency everyone has come to expect from the defending Super Bowl champs.
``We seem to battle back, but if we had a little better start in San Diego we could be 10-1,'' Dungy said. ``I'm excited with where we are and I think we can have a good December. We're hoping to be back in pads Wednesday and Thursday, and that should help.''

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