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NFL: Panthers, Colts try to change script with strong finishes

By Michael Marot

AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts still sound motivated.

With the playoffs out of reach, their championship quest on hold for another season and two seemingly meaningless games left, coach Frank Reich spent the past few days making some adjustments.

And explaining to players exactly what’s at stake.

“The goals are pretty simple. I mean win both games,” he said. “We’ve got to win this week. So finish 8-8, that is one goal. The other goal is — we are still training. There is an urgency now, but there is a bigger picture. You are always getting better.”

The Colts (6-8) certainly didn’t expect to be talking this way heading into Sunday’s game against Carolina after sitting atop the AFC South midway through the season.

But a rash of injuries, a flurry of costly special teams mistakes, and back-to-back sub-par defensive performances led to a fourth consecutive loss Monday at New Orleans, sealing Indy’s fate. The Colts have lost six of their last seven.

The Panthers (5-9) certainly understand Indy’s plight.

Kyle Allen won four of his first five starts after replacing the injured Cam Newton, prompting some to speculate Allen could be Newton’s eventual successor. Since then, though, the Panthers have fallen out of contention with six straight losses.

The collapse led to the ouster of longtime coach Ron Rivera in early December and Allen has been benched largely because of his turnover-prone ways. On Sunday, rookie Will Grier will make his first start in place of Allen.

“I think it’s just a football game,” interim coach Perry Fewell said when asked if he had any tips for Grier. “A credit to the movie ‘Hoosiers,’ it’s 53 1/3 yards wide, 100 yards long. We practice on it every day and play on it on Sundays, so it should be no different for him.”

Nor to Fewell.

Ten years ago, he closed the season as Buffalo Bills interim coach with a 30-7 victory when the Super Bowl-bound Colts rested their starters in the meaningless finale. Reich plans to play it straight, using his regulars, maybe even giving four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton more playing time as he continues recovering from an injured calf.

And inside in Indy’s locker room the message is simple: win before going home for the offseason.

“We are all men, we all trust each other, we’re going to fight for our brothers,” Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard said. “We’ve got to win.”

•••

THE GREAT CHASE

Christian McCaffrey hopes to celebrate his Pro Bowl selection by joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the third running back in history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. It will take some work. McCaffrey needs 186 yards receiving over the final two games to become the third member of the club.

While he said stats don’t drive him and credits his offensive line for a season in which he leads the league in yards from scrimmage (2,121) and total touchdowns (18), he’s impressed many around the league, too.

“He’s a great guy in this league and he’s been dominating the whole year,” Leonard said. “We’ve got to stop him, we’ve got to slow him down.”

•••

EXPERIMENTAL TIME

Reich acknowledged he might use the final two games to try some new wrinkles.

Though he wouldn’t disclose specifically what he may experiment with, he said quarterback Jacoby Brissett also expressed a desire to change it up.

“He had a few things,” Reich said. “He said, ‘Hey, can we do a little bit more of this and why don’t we try this?’ A few small things that I thought were good suggestions.”

•••

MOORE’S CHANGE

It will be interesting to see how the quarterback change impacts Panthers receiver DJ Moore, who has averaged more than 101 yards and caught three TD passes in the last seven games.

Moore said it doesn’t matter who’s throwing the ball, explaining his recent success is more about the system than the quarterback.

“I just do my job,” Moore said.

•••

OFFENSIVE WOES

Indy’s inability to close out games is one reason the Colts will miss the postseason for the fourth time in five years. They’ve been outscored 31-7 in the fourth quarter of the last three games. Even worse, the Colts’ once strong running game has virtually ground to a halt with Marlon Mack gaining just 57 yards on 24 carries the last two weeks.

Clearly that’s an area Reich wants to fix and it could happen this week against a defense that is allowing a league-worst 5.19 yards per carry.

But the Colts know they must execute better, too.

“We haven’t game planned it well enough as coaches. We haven’t executed it well enough as a team and some of it is just sheer attempts,” he said. “We’ve got to try and straighten that out the next two weeks.”

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AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, also contributed

•••

COWBOYS QB PRESCOTT PLANS TO PLAY THROUGH SHOULDER INJURY

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott is simply reliving his college days with a shoulder injury that is limiting him in practice for the first time in four seasons as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

As for whether the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year will miss his first game as a pro when the Cowboys try to wrap up a playoff spot at Philadelphia.

That’s a no.

“I’ll be good to go Sunday,” Prescott said Thursday, a day after coach Jason Garrett revealed that Prescott wouldn’t be throwing in practice to start the week after getting his right shoulder crunched at the end of a run early in Dallas’ 44-21 win over the Los Angeles Rams last week.

Prescott has shown up on the injury report before with minor, nagging issues, but never been forced to yield practice reps to his backup. Cooper Rush did those honors the first two workouts this week.

In Prescott’s mind, something about all this is nagging, too.

“It’s just annoying,” Prescott said of the pain he was experiencing. “It’s nagging. Definitely dealt with a lot more pain. So it’s just nagging.”

And familiar, going back to his days as a Mississippi State standout, before he was the forgotten fourth-round pick who rose to sudden NFL stardom as a rookie when Tony Romo got hurt in 2016.

“I’ve been fortunate I guess in the NFL not dealing with it,” said Prescott, who is second in the NFL in yards passing while leading the NFL’s No. 1 offense.

“But in college, this was a once-every-other-week thing, especially running as much as I did. It’s not anything that I haven’t had before. I know how to handle it and we’re taking the right approach.”

News of the shoulder issue overshadowed Fox television analyst Troy Aikman’s revelation last Sunday that Prescott told him before the Rams game that there was a hairline fracture in his right index finger.

Garrett volunteered the finger injury after it happened against Chicago two weeks ago, but didn’t offer specifics. The coach still didn’t want to discuss details after hearing what was said by Aikman, a former Dallas quarterback.

Neither did Prescott, who has started every game in his career — 65 and counting, playoffs included.

“Not that I know of,” Prescott said when asked if he had a hairline fracture. “I’ve overcome it at this point.”

But did he have one?

“I wasn’t sure if there was one,” said Prescott, who also has been dealing with a sprained left wrist. “Obviously the finger hurts a little bit. It’s another just one of those annoying deals that you just deal with.”

Annoying, nagging, whatever, there hasn’t been much question among Prescott’s teammates over whether he would play.

“Knowing Dak, you’d have to kill him to keep him off the field,” right guard Zack Martin said.

Tight end Jason Witten, back for a 16th season after spending a year in retirement as a broadcaster, went through plenty of weeks with Romo limited or not practicing, particularly late in the career of the club’s all-time passing leader.

This is different simply because Prescott had never missed any practice time. But there’s been no change in Prescott’s presence.

“He’s been reminding us, ‘I’m going to be fine. Here’s what I’m thinking,’” Witten said. “That communication, in the meetings, there’s a team we’re familiar with, but you get in these type of games, those details matter.

“You get banged up a little bit during the week, those are the things you have to do and you have to overemphasize those things when you physically aren’t doing them. That’s exactly the way you draw it up, the way he’s going about it.”

Prescott, who said he hoped to start throwing by Saturday at the latest, was coy about how the injury would be handled, about whether the finger was broken — even about how the equipment staff was planning to protect the shoulder.

“Yeah, we got a great offensive line, got great receivers, running backs,” Prescott said with a smile. “I know my teammates will take pride in keeping me clean. I know that I’ll be smart in the licks that I take.

“But as far as extra stuff, it’s tricky when you’re putting it on your throwing shoulder. I’ll be fine.”

NOTES: LT Tyron Smith has been dealing with a swollen eye that Garrett said was “in the stye family.” Garrett has declined to be more specific. Smith is expected to play. He was limited in practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday’s workout. … LB Joe Thomas (knee) hasn’t practiced this week, and his availability against the Eagles is in question. … LB Sean Lee (pectoral, thigh injuries) returned to practice Thursday and should play.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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