INDIANAPOLIS – In three ugly, embarrassing, listless hours on an impactful Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., the scenario for an entire franchise devolved from win-and-in to lose-and-now-what?
Where to the Indianapolis Colts go from here?
Certainly not to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. They took care of that, completely thumbing their nose at the ridiculously favorable odds with two games remaining – roughly a 98% shot at reaching the postseason – and, as a result, forced to deal with the harsh reality of a season over too soon.
“Never expect to be sitting here, you know, having this moment right now,’’ a crest-fallen Frank Reich said. “Not like this.’’
Not after being in position – for a second straight week, for crying out loud – to earn a playoff spot by taking care of business, this time against the NFL’s worst team. That would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who entered the afternoon 2-14 but bounced off the TIAA Bank Field 3-14 and still that 400-pound gorilla on the Colts’ back.
Jaguars 26, Colts 11.
And it didn’t seem that close as the Colts’ losing streak in Jacksonville incredibly reached six games.
“Very devastating,’’ said veteran wideout T.Y. Hilton, who might have played his final game for the Colts.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a shock to everybody,’’ offered center Ryan Kelly. “There’s not many words to describe it.’’
Linebacker Darius Leonard kept circling back to the same phase.
“My first reaction is it just sucks, you know?’’ he said. “. . . you go on the run (after a 1-4 start) and to end the way that we did, you know, it sucks. As of right now, that’s all it is. It sucks.
“We came down here and just flat out got dominated. You know, it just sucks.’’
What’s difficult to grasp is the manner in which an inspiring season went into a death spiral the last two weeks.
Before Sunday’s collapse, which was arguably the most crippling regular-season loss since the Colts called Baltimore home, there was the preceding 23-20 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Coming here and controlling your own destiny in the last two weeks of the season, to go in and not handle your business is a sting that will hurt for a long time,’’ Kelly admitted.
There was no argument from Carson Wentz, who figures to be the focal point of an offseason that suddenly has more questions than answers.
“It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth and a lot of guys’ mouth,’’ he said. “It’s not where we want to be and not what we expected to be, either.
“You know, expected to finish stronger than we did, and we didn’t get it done. It’s a bad, bad, bad feeling.’’
Wentz’s late-season fade not only continued, but worsened. He was 17-of-29 for 185 yards with a late cosmetic touchdown to Michael Pittman Jr., and suffered two killer turnovers in the third quarter: a lost fumble when his offensive line gave up one of a season-high six sacks and a poor decision/throw that was intercepted by Damien Wilson.
Prior to the turnovers, the game still was somewhat within reach at 13-3. After them, the Trevor Lawrence-led Jaguars had their hands around the Colts’ throat at 23-3.
“I gave it away,’’ Wentz said. “Gave it away (and) put our defense in a bad position.’’
Not only didn’t the pass protection hold up – the six sacks along with four other hits on Wentz – the run blocking was lacking. Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s rushing champion, finished with 77 yards on 15 carries. It was his least productive game since week 8 against Tennessee (70 yards on 16 attempts).
And the defense? Where to begin?
“I wish I could put my finger on it. I just don’t know,’’ Leonard said. “I just feel like they came out swinging. We kind of just got hit in the mouth – you know what I’m saying? – and we didn’t adjust accordingly.
“We didn’t do enough defensively. We didn’t get off the field. We didn’t have no turnovers. I just put all the pressure on myself. I didn’t do enough.’’
Lawrence did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted: 23-of-32, 223 yards, two touchdowns. The Jaguars averaged a modest 5.0 yards per play, but converted 8-of-16 times on third and fourth down.
Jacksonville scored on six of its first nine possessions: Lawrence’s two TD passes and four Matt Wright field goals. And two of those field goals came after the Jaguars reached the Indy 4- and 2-yard lines.
With everything on the line, the Colts went out with a whimper.
And that begs the question: How does the franchise recover from such a punch to the gut?
Owner Jim Irsay posted a video on Twitter after the game thanking his fan base for its support. His disappointment was evident.
“It’s a very tough loss,’’ he said. ‘We’re disappointed. We’re angry.
“We’re all just collecting our thoughts . . . we’re going to get ready for a great season in 2022.’’
But what changes loom? The Colts finished 9-8 despite having a roster that saw a league-high seven players selected to the Pro Bowl, and Taylor set a franchise record with 1,811 yards.
During training camp, Irsay signed Reich and general manager Chris Ballard to extensions through 2026. It’s hard to imagine either being in jeopardy, despite the colossal collapse.
However, Reich conceded everyone and everything should be scrutinized.
“I mean, it’s the NFL. This is the highest level there is,’’ he said. “It’s all day-to-day stuff. We love that about this business. I love that about this business.
“I never back away from that or shy away from that. As a coach, for the players, you put your best stuff out there. And if it’s good enough, they want you back. If it’s not good enough, they don’t want you back. But as a player or as a coach, you’ve got so much confidence in yourself that you feel like ‘I’m good,’ you know?’’
The Colts acquired Wentz in the February trade with Philadelphia, convinced he was their long-term answer. The cost was a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 first rounder. It’s worth pointing out the Eagles and first-year coach Nick Sirianni earned a wild-card berth after dumping Wentz and turning to Jalen Hurts.
But after a solid first half of the season, Wentz faded. Badly.
His stat line over the final eight games: 132-of-216 (61.1%), 1,365 yards, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, an 87.1 passer rating. He averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt and 10.3 yards per completion.
Might the Colts decide they made a mistake investing so heavily in Wentz? He has a 2022 base salary of $22 million. If they took the drastic step of cutting him and looking for their QB elsewhere, he’d count $15 million in dead money but would free up $13 million under the cap.
Reich wasn’t prepared to address Wentz’ situation.
He said there “were a lot of bright moments for him,’’ but added the passing game “just hasn’t been good enough. So, that starts with me. I know we can be better . . . I’m not saying that to minimize how poor it was in the last couple of weeks or last half of the season.’’
Wentz added there’s “a lot of reflection to come over the next handful of days, unfortunately.
“It’s not a good feeling right now.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.