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Matt Hasselbeck has saved Indy's season, and potentially more

INDIANAPOLIS -- A couple minutes after Matt Hasselbeck finished the postgame press conference following a great performance in a 25-12 victory over Tampa Bay, I asked him if he knew the Earl Morrall story.

He didn't; his current schedule doesn't give him the time to study football history. He's too busy trying to make history himself. Morrall was asked at the age of 38 to take over a Miami Dolphins team that temporarily lost starting quarterback Bob Griese to a broken ankle. Morrall won nine games and then went back to the bench and let Griese complete a 17-0 season.

There is no quarterback controversy at Lucas Oil Stadium. When Andrew Luck recovers from his kidney injury, Hasselbeck will step aside and allow Luck to take back his offense. The "Morrall" to this story -- I had to do it -- is Hasselbeck, 40, is saving the Colts' season.

"We're just playing team football," Hasselbeck said. "I'm just trying not to screw it up. That's all."

He's doing more than that. He's setting receivers in the right position. He's making audibles out of bad plays into good ones. Against the Buccaneers, he completed 26 of 42 passes for 315 yards. As a starter, he's 4-0 this season. In NFL history, only Brett Favre had four straight wins in his 40s.

More broadly, Hasselbeck is keeping the franchise in the right place. The Colts' front office has made some questionable moves, but they were smart enough to have two quarterbacks who can win football games when a number of teams can't find one of them.

What has happened to the Colts this season hasn't been orthodox, which makes Hasselbeck's heroics even more implausible. Luck is the best young quarterback in the game. By next year, he will probably sign a contract that will exceed the $22 million a year Aaron Rodgers collects. Yet the Colts have been anything but lucky this season.

Poor construction of the offensive line robbed the running backs of running lanes and left Luck vulnerable. As the season progressed, Luck might have been the most beat-up quarterback in the game. General manager Ryan Grigson brought in older stars to push a team that finished 11-5 for three years over the top. Wide receiver Andre Johnson was signed from Houston, but he has only 26 catches and is being used almost like a fourth receiver. Frank Gore grows more frustrated by the day after seeing defenders in his backfield limiting him to 3.6 yards a carry. Linebacker Trent Cole was signed from the Philadelphia Eagles to bring pass-rush help, but he didn't get his first sack until Sunday.

At 4-5 and with Luck hurt, the Colts were at the crossroads of the season. Two Hasselbeck starts later, they are 6-5, tied for first place.

"I've seen what's been going on with Matt for a year and a half," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "Coach [Chuck] Pagano always says prepare as a starter because you never know. This year, out of all the years, if you don't get the message, you are missing it. It's not a cliché in this locker room. We've had a lot of guys banged up. A lot of guys stepped into new roles."

As it turns out, the presence of a backup came at the perfect time. The Colts were coming undone as a franchise. There have been rumblings of front-office tension between the coach and the general manager. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was fired. The defense wasn't in sync. Luck wasn't healthy. Pagano, whose contract runs out after the season, was coaching for his football life in Indianapolis.

Hasselbeck may end up being the one who keeps things together, perhaps even some jobs in the Colts' organization, and it has been as much about limiting errors as it is making brilliant throws.

"Of late, he's not turning the ball over," Jackson said. "If you don't turn the ball over and you play solid defense, you can win. We've learned to play team football the last few weeks."

That was Luck's big issue earlier in the year, but Hasselbeck doesn't discount Luck's presence or ability.

"This is my third year here now, practicing with Andrew Luck," Hasselbeck said. "He's a really good player and he's a very, very hard worker. They coach him hard, and he asks to be coached hard. I do believe I've gotten better being coached hard and being around him. I've learned a lot of football being. I came here kind of thinking what else could you know, what else can you do to the man or zone or this kind of thing? I've learned a lot of football here."

On Sunday, his halftime adjustment was telling wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief to work the hashmarks of the Bucs' Cover 2 zone and stay loose. Moncrief caught eight passes for 114 yards. Hilton caught six for 95.

Even more amazing was Hasselbeck's ability to move. On roll-outs, he occasionally made quick spins. A couple times, he rifled perfectly thrown balls to spots in which the receiver had to run -- throwing them open.

"He's not playing like he's 40 ... he's playing and having fun," Hilton said.

Of course, Hasselbeck can't relax. The Colts are tied for a division lead. Next week, they have a tough road game in Pittsburgh and could fall behind the Texans if Houston wins in Buffalo.

Wherever they end up, they're over .500 and in the playoff picture now, because a quarterback they didn't want to have to use hasn't allowed them to lose. Hasselbeck is saving the Colts' season.

Inside the Huddle

• What an incredible month for the AFC South. After going 4-15 in non-division games in September and October, the AFC South went 8-5 in November and won't be the worst division in NFL history, which was a possibility a month ago. The AFC South is now 12-20 in non-division games.

• The worst division in the NFL now becomes the NFC East, which is 9-19 in non-division games. Things are getting so bad in Philadelphia that I am starting to wonder if players have given up on Eagles coach Chip Kelly. One more bad loss could force Kelly to look seriously at USC or some of the good college openings.

• Great win for Jay Gruden and the Washington Redskins, beating the Giants, 20-14. The Redskins have the same 5-6 record as the Giants and are tied for the division lead. If this continues, it could set up serious talks for Kirk Cousins to stick around for a while.

• Anyone who questioned Russell Wilson's ability to be an elite quarterback will have to stay quiet after his impressive performance in a 39-30 win over Pittsburgh. In one of the best games of the year, Wilson dueled Ben Roethlisberger, who was at his best. The Seahawks are again on pace to reach 10 or 11 wins.

• Things are so bad in Atlanta following the Falcons' 20-10 loss to Minnesota that reporters were asking if Matt Ryan would be benched. Red zone turnovers are killing the Falcons during this 1-5 stretch, but Ryan is not in any danger. He just needs to play better.

• By the end of Week 12, there will be about 18 players who missed this week's games because of concussions. That's not surprising considering more than 10 suffered concussions last week. Teams are being cautious, as they should.

• This will surprise you, but by my count, missed starts are down about 50 compared to this point last year. I had about 1,855 total missed starts by players last year, which was an all-time high.

• It's hard to believe Nick Foles not only lost his job a week ago but looked so bad filling in for injured Case Keenum that it's going to be hard to get him back in the starting lineup. In the 31-7 loss to Cincinnati, Foles continues to show he can't complete downfield passes.

• That was another gutsy win by Kansas City, even though they didn't have their top two running backs and lost sack master Justin Houston to a knee injury in the 30-22 win over Buffalo. Andy Reid is doing a great coaching job, and Alex Smith stepped up with more downfield throws than normal.

• Oakland's 24-21 win over Tennessee may not be considered notable, but it was. Derek Carr executed the game-winning drive, and with him at quarterback, the Raiders have won three road games this year. They haven't done that in a long time.

• No surprise, but new Dolphins defensive end Quintin Coples made no impact in his debut for the Miami Dolphins, who lost to the New York Jets, 38-20. He had no tackles and one quarterback hurry.

• I didn't see much improvement in the Saints' defense after having a bye week and going to Dennis Allen as the new defensive coordinator. The Houston Texans had little problem moving the football in the first half.

Philip Rivers continues to have an amazing season in what has been a terrible year for the San Diego Chargers. In the 31-25 win over Jacksonville, he passed the 40,000-yard mark and is the fourth-youngest QB to do that. He threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns.

• With Ahmad Brooks missing the 49ers' 19-13 loss to Arizona, the team had a young defense on the field. Their oldest starter was Michael Wilhoite, who is 28.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles made two costly penalties when he made throws after crossing the line of scrimmage. He is learning and getting better, but the obvious mental errors need to stop.