Fourth-quarter fade leaves Colts teetering on the brink

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 01: Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts speaks with Jacoby Brissett #7 during the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 1, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season that began with so much bounce – anyone remember 5-2? – is on the verge on unraveling. Four losses in five games tends to do that.

A team that had thrived on complementary football – anyone remember what Frank Reich described as a “consummate team win’’ against Houston in week 7? – did its level best to meltdown en masse Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The byproduct of the Indianapolis Colts’ 31-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans – anyone remember when the Colts led 17-7 in the third quarter? – is quickly diminishing playoff aspirations. According to FiveThiryEight.com, which projects these things, Indy now has a 10 percent chance of reaching the playoffs.

A team that reached the postseason by winning nine of its final 10 games last season is in freefall. The Colts are 6-6, missing too many front-line skill players on offense and showing no signs of mounting a late December push.

After the latest stumble, owner Jim Irsay addressed his team. He challenged the players.

“Mr. Irsay had a little something to say in there, too, which was good,’’ Reich said. “Just challenged us to do everything we can do it finish 10-6 and then let’s see. Usually 10-6 gets you in a high percentage of the time. We’ll see where the numbers are.’’

Wideout Zach Pascal noted Irsay stressed to “handle our business. We can only handle what we can control at this point. The owner says he believes in us and believes in this team.

“Everybody knows how to handle adversity. We’ve got a lot of undrafted guys, guys who’ve had to fight to get where we’re at today. We’re going to take it one day at a time and keep going.’’

Added linebacker Anthony Walker: “We have guys on this team that when they’re backed into a corner, they’re always going to fight their way out of it, no matter what the circumstances are, no matter who’s down.

“We’ve put ourselves in this hole. We’ve got to climb out of it.’’

Seek out culprits following Sunday’s fast fade in a somber Colts’ locker room and you’ll see hands raised in virtually every corner. Such as:

Special teams: Late in the fourth quarter, Adam Vinatieri lined up for a 46-yard field goal that would have given the Colts a 20-17 lead with 5 minutes to play. A split-second later, the Titans were up 24-17. Dane Cruikshank ran untouched through a gap in the right side of Vinatieri’s protection and smothered the kick. Tye Smith caught the ricochet in midair and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown.

What happened?

“I’ve got my head down so I can’t tell you what happens in front of me when that’s all going on,’’ Vinatieri said.

Even so . . .

“No one should ever come that clean through the D-gap,’’ Reich said.

Anthony Castonzo was lined up to the far right of the protection with Margus Hunt to his immediate left. Castonzo lunged for Joshua Kalu, who was split out wide, while Hunt was engaged with Sharif Finch.  Cruikshank split them and turned the game around.

Hunt took the blame.

“They had been doing that,’’ he said. “I single-handedly messed it up. I got caught up on a guy I wasn’t supposed to get caught up on. He just slipped through and got to the kick.’’

It’s worth noting it was the Titans’ second blocked kick of the afternoon, and Vinatieri’s third miss. Austin Johnson deflected Vinatieri’s 53-yard attempt in the first quarter, and Vinatieri earlier pushed a 55-yard attempt wide right.

Vinatieri’s now missed a career-high 14 kicks – eight field goals, six PATs – and that includes three that have been blocked or tipped. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Offense: Brissett finished with 319 yards, the second-highest total of his career, and a 21-yard touchdown to Jack Doyle, but too often his offense failed to deliver.

That was especially true in the first quarter. The defense came up with takeaways on two of Tennessee’s first three drives that gave the offense possession at the Titans’ 39- and 33-yard lines. The Colts capitalized on the first with Brissett’s TD to Doyle, but came away empty on the second with Vinatieri’s tipped 53-yard attempt. A third trip into Tennessee territory ended with the wayward 55-yarder.

Perhaps more success early could have averted the fourth-quarter collapse.

And that late fade included two Brissett interceptions and a critical holding penalty on guard Quenton Nelson. After reaching a first-and-10 at the Titans 28, Nyheim Hines’ 6-yard run was negated by the penalty on Nelson. The drive quickly stalled, leading to Vinatieri’s disastrous 46-yard attempt.

“It’s just a question of making plays in the fourth quarter,’’ Reich said. “We made a few critical errors in the fourth quarter to either give up a big play or get behind the sticks, get a holding call, get in a long-yardage situation.’’

Consider the offense’s final six possessions: two interceptions, a lost fumble, a blocked punt and two punts.

The NFL’s No. 3-ranked running game managed just 82 yards on 24 carries. After consecutive 100-yard games, Jonathan Williams finished with 14 yards on eight carries before being replaced in the second half by Jordan Wilkins.

There are no excuses, but the offense was operating without three of its top playmakers: T.Y. Hilton (calf), Marlon Mack (hand) and Eric Ebron (on IR with ankle issues).

Defense: It was so good for so long, then not nearly good enough. At the half, the defense had five sacks, two takeaways and had limited the Titans to 118 yards on 29 plays. By game’s end, Ryan Tannehill had completed 17-of-22 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns and Derrick Henry had rambled for 149 yards on 26 carries. It was his third straight 100-yard game and snapped the Colts’ streak of 29 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the NFL’s second-longest active streak.

Even after Smith’s return with the blocked field goal, the game still was within reach. The Titans led 24-17 and were in position to create more separation after Brissett’s second interception, but faced a third-and-6 at the Indy 40. That’s when Tannehill delivered the dagger: a 40-yard TD to Kalif Raymond.

“We didn’t play well, coach well enough in all three phases to win,’’ Reich said. “When you lose and you lose this time of year, I think it’s fair to say everything gets accentuated, as it should.

“We know that and we take ownership of that. We understand what was at stake.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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