One week later, we would have understood the obvious about the Indianapolis Colts.
They would make their annual trip to the Lone Star State and most likely lose to the AFC South Division-leading Houston Texans, and in the process force fans to accept that the Colts aren’t a playoff team.
That reality check instead came on Sunday in an inept 6-0 loss at Jacksonville.
Playoff teams don’t lose games like this, not against a Jaguars team on the verge of implosion, a home team that had lost seven in a row, was starting a backup quarterback who had never won an NFL start in eight previous tries, an AFC South Division rival without its best running back as well as three injured offensive linemen.
Playoff teams don’t get blanked by a 3-8 opponent when your quarterback, Andrew Luck, is one of the hottest in the NFL and the AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
It was understandable to be optimistic considering the Colts had won five in a row to pull even with Baltimore at 6-5 for the AFC’s final playoff spot. They had played so well to bring the “playoffs” into water-cooler conversation.
The worst part of that fun stretch, ironically, was when the Colts failed to score in the second half of a 29-26 home win over the Jaguars three weeks ago. Who could have imagined that the rematch would see first-year head coach Frank Reich’s team fail to produce a point for an entire game.
Reich deserves some of the blame. He eschewed a couple of chip-shot field goals to go for touchdowns when in close in the first half. Denied each time, those decisions would loom large later on. Then the Colts came up empty for a third time on a fourth-and-1 play.
One yard, three times. Convert at least once and this likely ends up differently.
“As good as our defense played and as well as our offense has been playing, you’d think that six points is going to be enough,” Reich said. “We were down in there enough, and that’s why you have to make every play count. They deserve a lot of credit for stopping us. Not every game is going to be running up and down the field – especially when you play a defense like that in their home stadium.”
The Colts had entered with the league’s fourth-best scoring offense at 29.5 points per game.
But everything this day was turned around. The Colts defense didn’t allow a touchdown yet lost. Jaguars backup quarterback Cody Kessler was hounded into scrambling and throwing mostly underneath — Colts defensive tackle Denico Autry had a career-high three sacks — but Kessler did just enough to get his team into position for two field goals.
“We just have to keep our heads up and keep grinding,” Autry said. “We have another division road game next week and we have to come back strong.”
Problem is, the Texans (9-3) have won nine in a row, a streak that began with an overtime win at Indianapolis. Reich critics won’t let anyone forget that game, when he went for it on fourth down in his own end in overtime, another aggressive call that backfired into a loss.
After history repeated itself this day, the Colts find themselves 6-6 and behind Baltimore (7-5). Meanwhile, Denver, Tennessee and Miami have also pulled even at 6-6.
Even if the Colts could pull off an upset at Houston, they’re still facing a challenging rebound. The remaining schedule includes a tough home game against the suddenly hot Dallas Cowboys (7-5), winners of four straight, as well as a season-ending visit to the Titans.
“I like losses like this because it makes you look back and it makes you think and you never let it happen again,” Colts tight end Eric Ebron said. “Yeah, we got shut out, (but) we can’t get shut out again.”
NFL players are conditioned to believe that they always have a chance to atone for failure as long as there are games remaining. It’s true, there are still four games to play, but this kind of game leaves the lasting perspective that the Colts, however well they’ve played to climb back into respectability, still have a ways to go to be considered a serious playoff team.
And we knew that coming into this season, didn’t we? Reich inherited a team that was 4-12 a year ago and a roster where most of the money is spent on offense, which meant the defense would struggle at times.
This was going to be a rebuilding process from day one, as has been suggested since preseason on numerous occasions. It stings to lose like this, considering Luck has been enjoying a career year, but nothing worked this day.
An offensive line which had protected him so well in a sack-less stretch of five games and 239 consecutive pass attempts broke down too often. Luck was sacked three times, and a fourth was negated by a Jaguars penalty.
Wide receivers dropped passes or struggled to get open and the run game was non-existent. And Luck made his share of mistakes when throwing — an early takeaway was wasted when the quarterback threw a bad pass that was intercepted deep in Jaguars territory.
Luck finished 33 of 52 for 248 yards with one interception. He had entered with an eight-game streak of throwing at least three touchdown passes.
“They played better than us. There’s not much more to say,” Luck said. “I also feel like I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, per se. (We’ve) got to improve. It’s disappointing. I am disappointed at myself, but we’ll get back to it and we’ll improve. This team has responded all year and that’s what we have to do.”
Another ironic twist to this debacle came after Adam Vinatieri kicked a 29-yard field goal on the fourth play of the second quarter. The Jaguars (4-8) were called for a personal foul, which gave the Colts a first down and half the distance to the goal line.
Then the Colts were unable to gain five yards in four plays, the last a Jordan Wilkins run that was stuffed for no gain just inside the 1. Had the Jaguars not committed that penalty, the Colts would have had three points they would desperately need later on. They could have kicked a tying field goal late.
Everything should have ended up differently. But not this day. Not when the Colts suffered from too many self-inflicted mistakes to avoid a reality check that was likely one week away.
Reich accepted his share of the blame, although there was plenty to go around.
“I’m not questioning, but we had a couple of calls that are hard calls to make,” he said. “You have to live with the calls that are made and you have to overcome those.”
The Colts didn’t.
Hopefully some time down the road, next year to be most precise, the guys still wearing the uniform as well as this coaching staff will learn from this humbling experience.