Former backup quarterbacks Minshew, Heinicke in spotlight as surging Colts visit fading Falcons


ATLANTA (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons are relying on former backup quarterbacks as the teams headed in opposite directions prepare to meet on Sunday.

The Colts (8-6) have won five of six with Gardner Minshew leading the offense to move into a share of first place in the AFC South. The Falcons (6-8) have benched turnover-plagued starter Desmond Ridder for the second time this season following two straight losses. Taylor Heinicke again moves into the starting role as the Falcons try to improve their fading playoff chances.

The 30-year-old Heinicke, who played for Washington the last three years, is with his fourth NFL team. Minshew, 27, is with his third. Heinicke says he doesn't know Minshew but believes they have much in common, including fun-loving personalities.

“I don’t know him personally, but I feel like we would be pretty close as friends," Heinicke said Wednesday. "I just think he looks like he has a lot of fun out there, he has a lot of passion for the game, and it looks like he’s a kind of wild-spirited guy and I think I feel like I would gravitate towards that. ... I think we kind of approach the game the same way, we kind of attack the game the same way, and it’s going to be exciting to play against him.”

Minshew has been the Colts' starter since mid-October, when rookie Anthony Richardson had season-ending surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith plans to stick with Heinicke for the final three regular-season games. That stretch could be crucial for Smith's future with the team. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said this week he will wait until after the season to decide if Smith, who is 20-28 in his three seasons, will return in 2024.

Ridder has thrown 10 touchdown passes with 10 interceptions, including a late pick in the red zone in last week’s 9-7 loss to the league-worst Carolina Panthers. The Falcons have fallen to third place in the division, one game behind Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

The Colts are tied with Jacksonville and Houston in the AFC South.

Coach Shane Steichen says Minshew's confidence on the field has helped the offense overcome a rash of injuries at running back and wide receiver.

“I think just his presence being here, veteran presence,” Steichen said. “Obviously, he’s played a good amount of years in this league. I say it all the time, I’m going to beat a dead horse but the preparation that he puts in is phenomenal. The way he carries himself around his teammates, on the practice field, in the locker room. Then obviously on game day, playing with a lot of confidence, which is awesome. You want that in a quarterback.”

The injury list for Indianapolis includes running backs Jonathan Taylor, who has missed three games following right thumb surgery, and Zack Moss (right arm). Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (concussion) is out, and right tackle Braden Smith (knee) missed the last two games.

The Falcons are now long shots in the NFC playoff race. They will need help in the division even if they win their final three games.

Atlanta's last winning season and playoff appearance came in 2017. The Falcons finished 7-10 in each of Smith's first two seasons.

Injuries aren’t the only concern for Indy. The team suspended two key special teams players — cornerback Tony Brown and receiver Isaiah McKenzie — for the rest of the regular season. The nameplates on both players’ lockers were missing Wednesday.

“I think we have standards around here and we have to live up to those standards,” Steichen said. “There are certain things that happen on football teams, but there’s going to be a standard and you’re going to be held accountable.”

McKenzie had been the Colts' primary punt returner until he — and Brown — were inactive last weekend. Rookie receiver Josh Downs replaced McKenzie as the return man.

Last week, Indy fell behind 13-0 and then scored the final 30 points to beat Pittsburgh. It’s not the first time the Colts started slow and finished strong. They forced overtime in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Rams after trailing 23-0, only to lose 29-23.

Despite having six scoreless first quarters this season, Indy is one win away from securing a winning record and enters Week 16 with a reasonable chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2020.

“When you get in those situations, it’s don’t flinch and keep going and going,” Steichen said. “That’s what these guys have been doing. They’ve been resilient and you’ve got to keep doing that.”