INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Change was in the air, even under the roof at Lucas Oil Stadium.
New head coach. New offense that might take sharing the football to the extremes. New defense that’s supposed to give up yards but tighten the screws in the shadow of the goal line. A roster that featured 22 players with less than two years experience, including 10 rookies.
And, oh yes, the return of an old familiar face. That would be Andrew Luck, who returned to the playing field in a game that counted for the first time in 616 days.
“Overwhemingly I just felt grateful and appreciative to be here,’’ said Luck, who admitted to being awash with emotions as he sat in the locker room before pre-game introductions. “Part of what I think I’ve been trying to do is . . . have that same feeling you get when you’re a 12-year old playing football, or 13, a young kid. It is a game.
“You play the game, you don’t work the game. You play football.’’
So much optimism followed Luck, Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts out of the tunnel against the Cincinnati Bengals.
But on this particular Sunday afternoon, the 2018 model looked eerily and disappointingly like the ’17 model. The NFL, after all, is a bottom-line business.
The Colts dropped their fifth consecutive season opener – this one 34-23 – in much the same manner they dropped so many games a year ago.
They couldn’t finish despite leading 16-10 at the half, 23-10 in the third quarter and 23-17 in the fourth. Remember 2017? In a 24-23 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, they led 13-10 at the half and 23-17 in the fourth quarter.
Overall, the Colts earned their 12-loss season a year ago by going 2-7 in games they enjoyed a halftime lead. The wasted four double-digit second-half leads and found a way to squander five fourth-quarter leads.
Different year, same team?
After taking that 23-10 lead, the Colts yielded 24 unanswered points, including 17 in the fourth quarter. Again, sound familiar? Last season they were outscored by 90 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“We just couldn’t finish in the end,’’ T.Y. Hilton said. “That’s all it was. It’s tough to win in this league, and it’s easy to lose them.’’
There were red-zone issues. Three trips inside Cincinnati’s 20-yard line netted Luck’s 5-yard touchdown to Hilton, Adam Vinatieri’s 21-yard field goal and a bad decision by Luck that resulted in an interception on the Colts’ first possession. The latter drive began at the Cincy 7-yard line after Kenny Moore II thwarted the Bengals’ first drive with an interception of Andy Dalton and 32-yard return.
“We get incredible field position,’’ Luck said. “Shoot, you can go start the season off with a touchdown or 3 points, and I repeated a mistake.’’
In the preseason against Baltimore, Luck forced a red-zone pass to tight end Jack Doyle, and paid the price with an interception.
This time when it counted, Luck again forced a pass to a heavily-covered Doyle that Preston Brown intercepted.
“Force a throw,’’ Luck said. “I can’t do that. We have a chance to be up 3-to-nothing at minimum, and I gave it away.’’
Randy Bullock’s 39-yard field goal gave the Bengals a 27-23 lead in the fourth quarter, but plenty of time remained. The Luck-led offense trotted onto the field with 3 minutes, 57 seconds and tons of confidence. In his first five seasons, Luck had directed 18 comebacks in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“No, no doubt in any of our minds that we were going to go down there and score,’’ offered tight end Jack Doyle. “And it didn’t happen. I messed it up. I messed it up and that stings.’’
On third-and-15 at the Cincinnati 30, Luck found Doyle – he calls him “Steady Eddie’’ – short of the line to gain. As Doyle fought for the necessary yardage, safety Clayton Fejedelem pried the ball loose, scooped it up and returned it 83 yards for the sealing touchdown. It’s worth noting Fejedelem had replaced starter Shawn Williams, who was ejected in the first quarter for a leading-with-the-helmet hit on a Luck scramble.
“It sucks and I’ll be better for it,’’ Doyle said.
Teammates had Doyle’s back.
“Jack cares about this game as much as any guy I’ve ever played around, and I love him,’’ Luck said. “You give him a big hug.’’
Hilton’s advice to Doyle: “Just keep your head up, man. Made some good plays. Wish it didn’t happen like that, but Jack is Mr. Reliable, man. It happens. Let it go.’’
There were other missed opportunities by the offense. One of the most glaring was Hilton’s drop of a Luck pass along the right sideline in the third quarter that would have gained a chunk of yardage. The Colts led 23-17 at the time, and the drive ended when Vinatieri’s 55-yard field goal attempt fell just short.
Two plays before Vinatieri’s miss, rookie Braden Smith was beaten by Carlos Dunlap for an 8-yard sack of Luck.
“You don’t pin it on one play. You don’t pin it on a fumble,’’ said Luck, who set a career best with 39 completions to nine different receivers while throwing for 319 yards. “There were some hidden yards, some hidden plays.
“We get Vinny 4 more yards and it’s a much easier field goal. The percentages go up.’’
While the offense didn’t do enough, neither did the defense.
It started effectively enough, limiting the Bengals to 162 yards and 10 points in the first half and generating two takeaways. But after the break, Dalton found some rhythm and made the necessary plays. Cincinnati’s final three possessions: TD, TD, FG.
The defense aided the Bengals’ closing kick. On one of the touchdowns, A.J. Green split safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers for a 38-yard strike. On the other, Geathers (interference) and rookie end Kemoko Turay (horse-collar tackle of Joe Mixon) drew gauging penalties on consecutive plays, and the defense was flagged for an illegal substitution as the Bengals faces second-and-goal at the 3.
Just like last year, the Colts couldn’t finish. And they paid the price.
“Tough loss,’’ Reich said. “Tough one to swallow.’’
Luck agreed after a busy return to football.
“It’s a work in progress with us,’’ he said. “We’ve got a lot to clean up. We have a lot.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. It hurts that we didn’t win. It crushes all of us, but what are we going to do? Go back and work and get better.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.