Tony Dungy says Colts have ‘some major work to do’ after Sunday night meltdown

Tony Dungy

Tony Dungy

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Who knew it took a flight to Houston for the Indianapolis Colts to arrive at their crossroads to the season?

Yet here they are, staring into the abyss following one of the largest meltdowns in franchise history.

Instead of sharing the lead in the NFL’s worst division, the Colts returned home early Monday morning dazed, confused and embarrassed after coughing up a 14-point lead in the final 3 minutes of regulation. Their epic collapse against the Texans, who scored the game’s final 17 points en route to a gift-wrapped 26-23 overtime win, left them alone in the AFC South’s dank basement at 2-4.

So, where to go? And we’re not necessarily talking about the next game, Sunday’s trip to Nashville against the Tennessee Titans.

Listen to former Colts coach Tony Dungy.

“Colts have some major work to do – psychologically – after melting down in the final 4 minutes last night,” he posted on his Twitter account. “That will be a tough one to forget.”

How do you move past allowing the Texans to become the first team since the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos in week 7 of 2011 against Miami to overcome a 14-point deficit in the final 3 minutes?

How do you deal with the reality that with a 23-9 lead and 7 minutes to play, you had a 99 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN Sports and Information?

How do you come to grips with finding a way to lose a game in the final 3 minutes after dominating it for the first 53?

Chuck Pagano offered no immediate answers.

We’ll go back to work tomorrow. What else are you going to do?

It’s about having a killer instinct. And finishing. You’ve got to learn. This team will fight. They will fight and they will fight and they will fight. They prepare and they work. We’ve got to find a way to finish people off.

We had an opportunity and we let it slip away, so you go back to work and you keep grinding.

If only it were that simple.

We’re not giving the offense a pass, but let’s be honest. Despite leaving points on the field – Andrew Luck’s awful interception in the final minute of the first half that denied, at worst, an Adam Vinatieri field goal and 16-3 halftime lead; poorly-executed third- and fourth-and 1 plays late in the third quarter – it gave the Colts a 23-9 lead with 7 minutes to play.

Fourteen-point lead with 7 minutes to play.

And the defense gagged, just as it did in the season opener against Detroit when it couldn’t protect a 35-34 lead with 37 seconds to play.

Listen to the always blunt Erik Walden.

“We just blew it. That’s the only word I can see to describe it,” he said. “We had everything right in front of us and then in the last eight minutes, you piss down your legs.

“It’s a gross feeling, but like I said, we either man up, bounce back or you fold. That’s the only two options right now.”

And this from veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who thought he had escaped such ridiculous football when he relocated from Cleveland in 2014.

“I can handle losing games,” he said, “but not in that fashion – when we have a big lead and we are playing well.”

So, we’ll ask again: Where do the Colts go from here?

Yes, there’s veteran leadership in the locker room. But we’re tired of hearing about the “winning culture” and the team having too much talent to be struggling so badly.

Of the 53 players on the active roster, 13 are rookies and two others – tight end Erik Swoope and linebacker Edwin Jackson – shared six appearances prior to this season. More than 28 percent of the roster has zero experience in that winning culture. Injuries are forcing too many young players to log serious minutes.

The final 10 games, starting with the Titans, represent an opportunity to quiet the critics, or feed them steroid-laced nourishment. The 10 games are against teams with a combined 32-23 record. Still to come are road trips to Green Bay (3-2), Minnesota (5-0) and Oakland (4-2), and let’s not forget the Nov. 24 home date with Pittsburgh (4-2), which has won the last two meetings 96-44.

Ten games remaining, and the Colts are last in the AFC South and at a crossroads. Another loss in Nashville and we could be looking at a death spiral.

“We have to make our mind up,” Frank Gore said. “We’re going to play ball or we going to just keep talking about it. I know we’re working hard. I know the coaches are working hard. I know we have the players here to do it.

“We just have to find a way to play all four quarters.”

Or else.

Owner Jim Irsay is a patient man. He prefers continuity to massive change, as evidenced by the retention of Pagano and Ryan Grigson in early January. He’s never fired a head coach during a season.

But all bets are off if Sunday’s collapse in Houston disintegrates into something truly embarrassing and unbearable.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51