INDIANAPOLIS – After 12 games, the Indianapolis Colts are who they are.
Good enough to generate double-digit leads in nine straight games.
And flawed enough to lose three of those, all against three teams that are a combined 24-11, lead their division and are headed to the playoffs.
That’s how you get to 6-6. And that’s how frustration mounts among a fan base as postseason hopes fluctuate from week to week.
What might have been?
“I continue to be encouraged about the direction of our team with our players, the belief we have in our players, our schemes and what we’re doing,’’ Frank Reich Monday.
“What’s not encouraging is we’ve had three games against playoff teams that we’ve had double-digit leads and we haven’t been able to close those games out.’’
A quick refresher:
Sunday: leading Tampa Bay 24-14 in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium only to falter and fall 38-31.
Week 8: sprinting out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil, but fading and falling 34-31 in overtime.
Week 5: leading 22-3 in the third quarter and still holding a 25-9 cushion with 12 minutes to play in regulation at Baltimore, only to collapse and lose 31-25 in overtime.
Make a play, maybe a few. Do something – anything – to finish what you started and make the journey to the postseason easier. The overtime loss to the Titans completed their season sweep and made the Colts’ possibility of winning the AFC South highly unlikely. Take into account the head-to-head tiebreaker, and they’re three back with five to play.
They’ve insisted on making things as difficult as possible, and it’s been a collective failure.
Reich insisted on shouldering much of the blame.
“The responsibility for that starts with me as the head coach,’’ he said. “I’ve got to do a better job. I’m not just the offensive play caller, I’m the head coach.’’
But every phase of the team has had a hand in blowing those double-digit leads.
At Baltimore, Rodrigo Blankenship missed what would have been a game-winning 47-yard field goal, had a 37-yard attempt blocked and missed a PAT after suffering a hip injury during pregame warm-ups. After containing the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens for three-plus quarters, the defense fell flat. Baltimore rattled off touchdowns on its final four drives by piling up 296 yards on 32 plays, and also converted two critical 2-point PATs.
Make a play.
Against the Titans, the offense couldn’t sustain its fast start, Carson Wentz suffered a pair of killer interceptions – a left-handed pick-6 from his own end zone and a game-sealing interception in OT – and the defense yielded three touchdowns and a field goal in a six-possession stretch.
The defense appeared to have made one of those meaningful plays in the second quarter – an interception by Tyquan Lewis – but he lost the football after suffering a season-ending torn patellar tendon on the return. On the next play, Ryan Tannehill hit A.J. Brown with a 57-yard TD.
Sunday? Five turnovers by the offense and special teams that led to 24 Buccaneer points; none was more crippling than left tackle Eric Fisher being beaten by Shaq Barrett, who came up with a strip/sack of Wentz. And the defense didn’t have enough answers for Tom Brady, who directed scoring drives on five of his last six possessions (four TDs, one field goal).
“We’ve all got to get just a little better,’’ Reich said. “We’ve got to coach it a little bit better. I have to make one more great call. There’s a lot of good calls, but I’ve got to make a great call, the right call, the perfect call in the perfect situation to put our guys in the best scenario to make that play.
“From a player’s standpoint, it’s just, hey, one play. Someone make that miraculous catch, that big stop on defense, a great play on special teams . . . that’s what you see when you watch the teams that are doing it. That’s what they’re seeing. They’re getting that from coaches and players at the level that we need to, to win the game.
“So, I’m encouraged that we’re building those leads against great teams. I know we have the players and coaches to get it done. We just have to prove it in a more consistent fashion.’’
DeForest Buckner’s status for Sunday’s trip to Houston is uncertain. The All-Pro defensive end briefly exited the Tampa Bay game in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury and likely will be limited in practice this week.
“Pretty banged up,’’ Reich said. “I don’t know if we’re going to see him at the beginning of the week. We’ll hopefully see him at the end of the week, but we’re going to have to take it day-by-day.
“There’s no guarantee on him.
Buckner returned for the second half and accounted for one of the two sacks of Brady. He also had three tackles and deflected one of Brady’s pass attempts.
Cost for Wentz
The Colts fully understood the magnitude and cost of acquiring Wentz in the February trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.
That price could crystalize Sunday at Houston.
Along with sending the Eagles a 2021 third-round draft pick, general manager Chris Ballard also packaged a conditional 2022 pick. It’s a first-rounder if Wentz plays in 75% of the snaps this season, or 70% if the Colts reach the playoffs. Otherwise, it’s a second-round pick.
That first-round threshold could be breached against the Texans.
Wentz has been on the field for 792 of 804 offensive snaps through 12 games. That’s 98.5%.
The Colts are averaging 67 snaps per game, which means Wentz needs to take 854 snaps on the season to hit the 75% threshold. Add another average day at Houston – 67 snaps – and he’s at 859.
Anyone arguing the Colts need to sit Wentz to protect their ’22 first-round pick is ignoring the fact Ballard made the trade expecting to lose that first-round pick. The conditional nature of the ’22 draft pick was insurance considering Wentz’s injury history.
Ballard didn’t invest so heavily in Wentz while hoping his new franchise QB would miss enough playing time so the Eagles would wind up with third- and second-round picks.
The AFC playoff picture
Clearly, Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay didn’t boost the Colts’ pursuit of a playoff spot.
But they remain very much in the thick of a muddled AFC.
They’re currently the conference’s No. 10 seed – seven teams earn playoff berths – but are one-half game out of the No. 7 spot held by the 6-5 Los Angeles Chargers.
In fact, the Colts are one of five teams within a short arm’s length of the Chargers. The Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos both are 6-5, while the Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-5-1 and Cleveland Browns 6-6.
The top 6 seeds: AFC North leader Baltimore (8-3), AFC East leader New England (8-4), AFC South leader Tennessee (8-4) and AFC West leader Kansas City (7-4), followed by 7-4 Cincinnati and 7-4 Buffalo.
According to FiveThiryEight.com, the Colts have the most favorable odds of earning the third and final wild-card spot: 53%. It moves to 62% if they win Sunday at Houston.
Odds for other non-top-6 contenders: Chargers (50%), Broncos (27%), Raiders (19%), Browns (19%) and Steelers (10%).
Good luck trying to get a grasp on what’s going to happen over the final six weeks.
The Chargers have lost four of six and the Raiders three of four. Denver has won three of its last four while Cleveland has dropped three of its last five. Pittsburgh is 0-2-1 in its last three and was dominated by Cincinnati 41-10 Sunday.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.