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One play was killer for Colts, but there was so much more in loss to Bengals

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CINCINNATI, Ohio – Watch the highlights, and one helluva season came down to one helluva play.

The snapshot moment of the Indianapolis Colts’ latest afternoon of frustration will be reduced to Cincinnati linebacker Carlos Dunlap’s one-man momentum swing: tipping Jacoby Brissett’s pass late in the fourth quarter, securing it, returning it for a 16-yard touchdown.

The pick-6 transformed a 23-17 Colts’ lead into a 24-23 loss. Just like that.

“We were ready for the quick throw because they were scared of our pass rush,’’ Dunlap said. “I saw an opportunity and jumped on it.’’

“He just made a great play,’’ Brissett said with a shrug.

Chuck Pagano was more emphatic.

“The guy made a helluva play down there,’’ he said. “He made a heckuva play. That’s usually what it comes down to.

“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.’’

It was one play out of 143 Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, but the one that will be mentioned, watched, rewound and watched again.

Yet the latest speed bump on the Colts’ road to nowhere – other than a high pick in the 2018 NFL draft, that is – involved so many other mistakes and missed opportunities. That’s why they headed home with their first three-game losing streak since 2015, a 2-6 record and the inevitability of missing the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time since 1988-94.

Yes, Sunday represented arguably the Colts’ best outing of the season even though it wasn’t enough to handle a meandering 2-4 Bengals bunch.

Brissett was decisive and efficient (25-of-39, 233 yards, two touchdowns). Tight end Jack Doyle emerged from an uncharacteristic funk with 12 catches, 121 yards – both career bests – and one touchdown. Frank Gore spearheaded a determined ground (82 yards on 16 carries). The defense limited the Bengals to 276 total yards, including just 58 on the ground, and harassed quarterback Andy Dalton throughout. Defensive tackle Henry Anderson compiled a fat stat line with seven tackles, one sack and a blocked field goal.

But that wasn’t enough to compensate for the negatives, including:

  •  obviously, the pick-6, the fourth suffered by Colts QBs this season. It might have been prevented if right tackle Joe Haeg had been better at engaging Dunlap, forcing Dunlap to keep his hands low.
  • four sacks and three other pressures allowed by Indy’s pass protection, and Brissett’s penchant for occasionally holding onto the football too long. On a game-sealing fourth-and-4 incompletion with 1:22 remaining, pressure up the middle by end Chris Smith foiled Brissett’s pass to T.Y. Hilton.
  • two drops by wideout Kamar Aiken and a third pass he either dropped or had wrestled out of his hands by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on third-and-7 with less than 6 minutes remaining.
  • rare special teams miscues, most notably a first-quarter block Rigoberto Sanchez’s punt.
  • the defense marring an otherwise splendid game by giving up a 67-yard catch-and-run screen pass to running back Joe Mixon and Dalton’s 25-yard pass that found Josh Malone in the end zone even though he was pressured by Margus Hunt.

The Colts made their share of plays. But in keeping with a maddening recent trend, they didn’t make enough.

“People know the key catches we’ve got to have, the key throws that we’ve got to have,’’ Brissett said. “We’ve got to make those critical plays in critical situations.’’

That used to be the Colts’ modus operandi.

Even after the loss to the Bengals, Indy is a league-best 34-15 in one-possession (eight points) games since 2012. But after going 19-4 in Andrew Luck’s first three, largely healthy seasons, the Colts are 15-11, including 2-2 this year.

Here’s where it’s worth noting Luck still is in rehab mode from January shoulder surgery and has missed 18 of 40 games since the Colts reached the 2014 AFC Championship game.

With the exception of the opening blowout in Los Angeles (46-9) and last week’s embarrassing home loss to Jacksonville (27-0), they’ve been right there. The Colts have had the halftime lead or a share of it in six of eight games. They’ve had a fourth-quarter lead five times and protected it only twice.

What do the Colts have to do to finish games?

“Finish. That’s what we’ve got to do,’’ Brissett said.

How do they deal with the frustration of yet another close loss?

“Sun’s going to come up tomorrow,’’ Brissett said.

Pagano admitted he’s still searching for answers that will address his team’s proclivity for failing to make that one or two plays that alter a game’s outcome.

“The simple answer is I can’t put my finger on it other than you keep going,’’ he said. “As long as you do that, you give yourself a chance to compete and play well . . . and get it deep into the fourth quarter and have a chance to win.’’

One play here. One play there.

“That’s how life is sometimes. That’s how football is sometimes,’’ Pagano said. “You keep going. You keep fighting. If you don’t give in and you don’t give up, it’ll turn. When that is, I don’t have a crystal ball.

“But I know if you go the other way I know what the outcome will be and that’s not this team. They will never do that.’’

Anderson was one the last players to exit the locker room. He was spent, and frustrated.

“The margin for error is so small in the league,’’ he said. “Games flip on one play and unfortunately they’re not going our way right now.

“We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves at all (but) we’re tired of losing. I don’t think any of the free agents came here to be 2-6. They all came here to win. We all want to win.

“We’ve just got to keep grinding throughout the week and hopefully fortune will turn our way.’’