INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Reich and his Indianapolis Colts have been here before. You know, essentially discarded and buried with so much of a season still undecided.
It was 2018, Reich’s first season as a head coach. His maiden voyage sprung a serious leak: a 1-5 start. His Colts regained their balance and won nine of 10 to finish the season and earn a wild-card playoff berth. They won their postseason opener at Houston before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round at Arrowhead Stadium.
Fast-forward to this season. A team considered playoff-worthy opened 0-3 –there were reasons, but no one cares – and slipped closer to the abyss at 1-4 with a collapse in Baltimore.
Sunday’s 23-17 win over Jacksonville lacked style points but achieved the ultimate goal – a fourth win in five games, a .500 record and a significant pulse in what has become a congested race for one of the three AFC wild-card spots.
It was a déjà vu moment for Reich, who mentioned that Monday to Matt Conti, the team’s senior director of football communications.
“I was just telling Conti I remember back in 2018 when we put ourselves in that hole and we got ourselves back to .500,’’ Reich said Monday. “I remember that feeling.
“It came back to me like it was yesterday.’’
That feeling wasn’t one of relief. It was more of renewed hope.
“It’s almost like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s some light. I’m not in complete darkness anymore,’’’ Reich said. “It feels like you’re in a hole and there’s nothing pleasant about it. You hear it all the time in this league . . . this is a week-to-week league and it seems like this year feels that way more than ever.
“You never know what’s going to happen.’’
It wasn’t that long ago the Los Angeles Chargers are among the AFC’s best at 4-1. Now, they’ve lost three of four.
Remember when the New England Patriots and their rookie quarterback were teetering at 1-4? Well, they’re on a four-game winning streak and overwhelmed the Cleveland Browns 45-7 Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals were a hot commodity after dominating the Ravens in Baltimore, but have cooled considerably with subsequent losses to the one-win New York Jets – in Cincy, no less – and Cleveland.
The Ravens still are atop the AFC North at 6-3, but they’ve dropped two of three.
The 6-3 Buffalo Bills still might be the class of the AFC – the 8-2 Tennessee Titans would argue the point – but there was that 9-6 loss at Jacksonville.
Eight teams are 6-4 or 5-5, and then there’s the 5-3-1 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Get the picture?
That was one of Reich’s talking points in the locker room Sunday evening.
“There’s a lot of good teams in the AFC,’’ he said, “but no one’s just taken over, so why can’t it be us?
“Why can’t the Indianapolis Colts take over right now? That’s our mindset. Why can’t we take over? So if we’re going to do it, we got to prove it this weekend in Buffalo against a very good football team.’’
Now that they’ve gotten back to .500, the Colts quickly will discover whether they can carry that momentum to loftier heights.
Sunday, it’s the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Nov. 28, they’re back in Lucas Oil Stadium against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s worth reminding everyone the Colts’ five wins have come against teams with a combined 11-34 record (.244). And they’ve lost eight straight against teams that reached the 2020 playoffs, including 0-5 this season.
Along with divisional rematches on the road with Houston (1-8) and Jacksonville (2-7), the Colts’ closing stretch involves road tests at Buffalo (6-3) and Arizona (8-2) and home dates with Tampa Bay (6-3), New England (6-4) and the Las Vegas Raiders (5-4).
“Every week is a great measuring stick and obviously going to Buffalo against a very good team, very well-coached team will be a great measuring stick to see where we’re at at this point in time,’’ Reich said.
About Wentz’s improv act(s)
Reich isn’t going to rein in Carson Wentz’s aggressive – OK, occasionally risky – approach. But there always is accountability whenever Wentz, a right-handed QB, decides to extend a play and flick a pass with his left hand.
That happened again Sunday against Jacksonville. Facing a third-and-3 at his own 18-yard line in the second quarter, Wentz found himself in the grasp of Taven Bryan with Josh Allen closing in. Instead of accepting the sack, Wentz switched hands and flipped the football to Jonathan Taylor with his left hand.
Reich’s reaction on the sideline wasn’t positive, and it had little to do with Taylor being pulled down short of the first-down marker.
“I didn’t like it,’’ Reich admitted Monday, “and that’s what’s going through my mind.’’
He considers Wentz’s playmaking ability invaluable to the Colts’ offense, but the risk-reward factor can’t be ignored whenever he goes off script.
In the week 8 overtime loss to Tennessee, an under-pressure, left-handed flip from Wentz out of his own end zone with 1:33 remaining in regulation was intercepted by Elijah Molden and returned for a TD that gave the Titans a 31-24 lead.
Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady discussed Wentz’s occasional improv acts Monday.
“The conversation’s really easy: ‘That’s not the norm . . . this is not approved practice,’’’ Reich said. “But we understand that this is an instinctive move. You saw (Kansas City’s Patrick) Mahomes do it last night. You see players do this all the time and get applauded for it.
“I’ve told Carson the story many times what my dad used to say to me. He said, ‘If you’re going to improvise and go out on your own and do your own thing, just make sure you get it right. Otherwise, you’d better stand up at the podium and take all the heat for it.’’’
After the Jaguars game, Wentz said his objective was “just getting it to my guy anyway I can. I don’t go out there saying, ‘Hey, if I’m getting drug down this way, I’m going to . . .’ I don’t think that’s my reaction.”
“I have to be smart in all of those, but at the same time, if there’s a play to be made I’m usually going to try to make that play. There’s always risks with it.’’
Wentz also attempted to make something out of nothing later in the second quarter. Under pressure and rolling to his left, he flicked a pass – right handed – to running back Nyheim Hines that fell incomplete. In the week 7 win against San Francisco, one of those desperation attempts to an open Zach Pascal was tipped by a defensive lineman and intercepted.
“He’s a talented guy and he can do stuff like that,’’ Reich said. “Every now and then it’s going to come back to haunt you, right? We want a filter on it. We don’t want it happening too much, but we’ve also got to trust the player.
“That’s why my experience tells me. You’ve got to trust the player. You’ve got to put some parameters, some guidelines on him, but you’ve got to trust the player at the end of the day and his instincts.’’
Reich added Wentz has been committed to ball security this season, especially after suffering 15 interceptions and losing four of 14 fumbles last season in Philadelphia.
Through 10 games, Wentz has 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He’s also lost three fumbles.
“He’s doing an incredible job of protecting the football this year,’’ Reich said. “The stats show that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.