Winless Colts big dog vs. Tampa Bay

The Indianapolis Colts have won their last two appearances on Monday night. Making it three in a row would prevent their worst start since the injured Peyton Manning was a rookie.

Looking to avoid going 0-4 for the first time since 1998, the Colts travel to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have installed the Bucs as hefty 10-point home favorites, with the total set at 40 1/2.

Indianapolis (0-3) remained winless after last Sunday night’s 23-20 home loss to Pittsburgh on a 38-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham with 4 seconds to play.

“I think we did some good things. Obviously, it wasn’t enough,” said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had two sacks. “We don’t care (about) second-place prizes or playing good for a half or three quarters. We didn’t play good enough to win.”

Indianapolis hasn’t lost four straight at any point since a five-game slide from Nov. 11-Dec. 10, 2001. Head coach Jim Caldwell said there’s been some improvement that needs to be taken to the next level.

“I think we’ve been improving a little bit. But we have to make another jump to get over the hump where we can get a victory, and then try to string a few together,” he said. “… We just have to build on the things that we’ve done well, keep doing those things.”

It may be hard to identify what’s gone right for Indianapolis, which is 28th in points (15.3 per game), 29th in total offense (254.0 yards) and 27th in passing (164.0 yards).

Already without Manning (neck) and Kerry Collins dealing with concussion-like symptoms, the Colts decided Friday to give Curtis Painter his first NFL start with Dan Orlovsky as his backup.

Painter went 5 of 11 for 60 yards with a sack and a lost fumble last Sunday, but produced the Colts’ only TD drive in his first regular-season action since the end of 2009.

Though he’s appeared in only three NFL games, Painter may be an upgrade over Collins, even if the 38-year-old veteran is available. Collins has completed 49 percent of his passes, averaging less than 5 yards per attempt. He’s thrown two TDs, one interception, lost three fumbles and been sacked five times.

“It just depends on the situation and we’ll address it as we go,” Caldwell said as to who will start at quarterback.

While the absence of Manning is by far the biggest blow to a team that’s reached the postseason in 11 of his 13 seasons, the Colts are also battling injuries to key players on a defense that ranks 29th with an average of 28.0 points allowed per game. Linebacker and defensive signal-caller Gary Brackett and starting safety Melvin Bullitt were placed on injured reserve Wednesday with shoulder injuries.

Reggie Wayne – a longtime favorite target of Manning with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons – has seen his production drop. He had just three catches for 24 yards last Sunday, marking the second time in his last four regular-season games that he’s had fewer than 25 yards receiving.

Wayne, who has 14 catches for 196 yards and a TD this season, needs 56 yards to become the 25th player with at least 11,000. He’s averaged 60.5 yards in two games versus the Buccaneers.

Though the Colts, 9-2 all-time on Monday night, are perhaps the most surprising of the NFL’s five remaining winless teams, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said his team will prepare for them as if they were still among the elite.

“We go into games and we treat everybody the same,” he said. “We have to get ready for the Colts system, a system that’s won over 10 games for the last decade.”

The Buccaneers (2-1) are coming off a 16-13 win over Atlanta last Sunday, and are tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South. Josh Freeman overcame two interceptions by completing 22 of 32 passes for 180 yards in an effective effort.

“He just had to maintain a productive offense, keep them off the field and give us an opportunity to win,” Morris said. “He found a way to win without playing great football. That’s kind of how you’ve got to win games in the National Football League versus good teams.”

Freeman is seventh in the NFL in completion percentage (67.9), but is in the middle of the pack with an average of 227.3 passing yards per game. He’s also tied for third with four interceptions and has fumbled twice.

He must also find a way to get the ball in Mike Williams’ hands. Williams, the Bucs’ leader with 964 receiving yards and 11 TDs in 2010, has 10 catches for 89 yards and a TD so far.

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