The Indianapolis Colts sure were fun while they lasted, and they lasted longer than expected.
Then came Saturday and the numbing cold of Arrowhead Stadium, where the Colts were subjected to a rather brutal NFL reality check as the Kansas City Chiefs administered a 31-13 AFC Divisional Playoff dismissal.
Whatever optimism the visitors had upon arrival disappeared immediately as the top-seeded Chiefs (13-4) dominated by scoring 17 quick points. The sixth-seeded Colts (11-7) didn’t remotely resemble a team that had won 10 of 11. They couldn’t do anything right, including losing the coin toss.
“It’s hard to give that team that start,” Reich said, who admitted he was mystified by how his team performed.
The Colts committed five early penalties, including three offsides, which is three more penalties than they had all game in a 21-7 AFC Wild Card Playoff win at Houston. They were soft in defensive coverage, giving up yards in chunks to quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Damien Williams.
And most alarming, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck couldn’t complete a single pass. Tight end Eric Ebron dropped the game’s initial third-down throw, and the avalanche began.
"It's a little bit of a tough pill to swallow," Luck said, "but no shame from the guys in that locker room."
It was so ugly, the Colts didn’t gain a first down until 1:35 before halftime. The Chiefs led 24-7 at the break. The Colts’ only score was unexpected on Najee Goode’s blocked punt that Zach Pascal recovered in the end zone.
When Luck and the offense finally did move the ball late in the half, Adam Vinatieri clanked a chip-shot, 23-yard field goal attempt off the left upright. That summed up the futility of those 30 minutes, then the frustration of being unable to mount a comeback in the final 30 minutes.
The second half was basically a stalemate, which was rather surprising when considering a Colts offense that ranked fifth in scoring couldn’t do much against the Chiefs’ 31st-ranked defense.
"We could not establish a rhythm," Luck said, "and that hurt. It really hurt."
The only time the Colts scored fewer points in a game was a 6-0 loss at Jacksonville.
"We all it seemed, myself at the top of the list, sort of took our turns messing the plays up," Luck said. "Credit to them. They outplayed us. They were the better team tonight. They certainly were."
While the stay-positive, big-picture narrative reminds that these vastly improved Colts have a bright future just one year removed from Luck’s career being in doubt due to shoulder surgery and the team imploding to 4-12, this one-sided affair also served notice that general manager Chris Ballard has some serious needs that must be addressed.
Put simply, the Colts lacked playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Take a look at how the Chiefs’ No. 1 offense worked with such precision, be it with Mahomes exposing the Colts secondary, with Hill catching passes and also scoring on a rush, Kelce getting open time and again to move the chains and Williams speeding through gaping holes including a TD run as if the defensive line wasn’t even there.
Mahomes sure didn’t look like a 23-year-old, second-year pro in his first NFL playoff game. The league’s touchdown pass leader with 50 showed why he’ll be named MVP by completing 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards with a TD rush.
Williams rushed for 129 yards. Kelce caught seven passes for 108 yards. Hill, in addition to his early 36-yard TD rush, had eight receptions for 72 yards.
The Chiefs celebrated their first home playoff win in 25 years. It’s also the first time the Colts have lost to the Chiefs after four playoff victories.
The NFL world is well aware that Colts Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has been playing on a bum ankle for two months. But not being able to get him involved enough in the first half was costly. Luck tried to spread the ball around, but to no avail.
Hilton still led the Colts with four receptions for 60 yards, including a 29-yard TD reception. Luck finished just 19 of 36 passing for 203 yards.
"T.Y. is a baller, man," Luck said.
Ballard fixed the offensive line this year, finally. Now surround Luck with more reliable wide receivers who can make life hard on defenses.
The Colts defensive line needs to be stronger up the middle, but an equally important priority is finding cornerbacks who can be counted upon in man-to-man coverage. The Colts came out in a soft zone and Mahomes carved it up in a stunning five-play, 90-yard TD drive that was just too easy.
When the Colts tried to play more man-to-man coverage, it didn’t matter. The Chiefs kept marching because Hill and Kelce couldn’t be defended.
Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard had 14 tackles as well as a forced and recovered fumble. Ballard will be searching for more young talent like “The Maniac,” a second-round pick who was arguably the NFL’s best rookie this season.
It’s unfortunate that the Colts’ season ended this way. First-year head coach Frank Reich provided the kind of steady, confident leadership that made the team’s comeback from a 1-5 start one of the most inspiring turnarounds in franchise history.
Reich tried to take the blame for the loss: “They outplayed us and outcoached us in all phases.”
The Colts have about $120 million in cap space, more than any other team, entering the offseason. They also have an extra second-round draft pick.
"This is not the ending anybody in the locker room wanted, myself included," Luck said. "I'm very thankful I could play football ... It was a rewarding season, a fulfilling season. I think I improved as a quarterback, very much so, and I know I've got a lot more improving to do."
Reich told his players he was proud of them.
“It’s hard to climb Mount Everest your first time that you go to climb it,” the coach said. “We didn't make it all the way to the top this year, but we made it up that mountain pretty far.”
Yes, indeed, there’s much to feel good about, and every reason to expect more good vibrations in the future.
There just wasn’t enough of it on Saturday.