Another big game and another unbearable loss for the Colts. This one hurt even more than the others as it was the Colts most crucial game of the season and gave the Titans a three-game lead in the race to win the AFC South.
It’s already happened too many times this season. Indianapolis gets a lead against a likely playoff team only to throw it away by losing late or even in overtime. It’s happened against the Rams, the Ravens, and now the Titans. It’s hard to overstate the impact these losses have had on the Colts season. If they win those three games, they’re 6-2 and being talked about as one of the top teams in the NFL.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new issue for the Colts. Last year, they managed to secure a massive overtime win against the Green Bay Packers, but they lost close games to the Steelers, Browns, Ravens, and the Bills in the playoffs.
I still believe that the Colts are a good, well-balanced team. But they’ll never be the great team they want to be and probably should become unless they discover how to win close games and beat big teams. In practice, beating good teams and winning close games are essentially the same thing. Good teams are rarely beaten easily, so if you’re looking to beat good teams, you’ve got to learn to win close games.
The positive side of the Colts situation is that they only have to become a little better to win a lot more games and beat some of the best teams in the NFL. But they will have to find a way to win these games to reach the next level and achieve their goals over the next few seasons.
Sunday’s loss was heartbreaking and left the Colts playoff hopes hanging by a thread. Derrick Henry’s unfortunate injury perhaps gives Indianapolis a slim chance of still winning the AFC South. While the state of the AFC as a whole means the Colts do still have a chance of getting a wildcard spot. To do either, you suspect the Colts would have to beat the Jets, Jags (twice), Texans, Patriots, Raiders, and Bills. The matchup against Buffalo is probably the toughest of the games. Still, it is winnable given Buffalo’s performances against the Steelers, Titans, and Dolphins and how close last year’s playoff clash was. On the other hand, winning all seven of those games is an extremely tall order and wouldn’t even guarantee a playoff spot.
Colts fans would be wise to hope for a playoff spot but not expect one this season. As frustrating and disappointing as that would be, it’s not the worst season for Indianapolis to underperform. The Colts set their aims this season as winning the AFC South and winning a playoff game. Both were reasonable and achievable ambitions.
But there were also some less tangible things the Colts wanted to get out of the season. The most important was seeing whether Carson Wentz could be the team’s Quarterback for the future. Sunday’s defeat reminded us that Wentz hasn’t entirely rid himself of the issues that plagued his final year in Philadelphia. His last interception into coverage when Taylor was wide open underneath was particularly painful. That being said, I think Wentz has shown he’s not broken and is indeed still capable of being a great Quarterback. Sunday was a reality check that showed that it would take time to train Wentz out of his bad habits, but by the end of this season I think Wentz will have shown enough to prove he’s the Colts Quarterback for the foreseeable future.
The second key question the Colts wanted to be answered is whether the teams’ young edge rushers were good enough. It’s still too early to say with Kwity Paye, and Odeyingbo has only just played his first snaps. But unfortunately, it looks like Lewis, Turay, and Banogu aren’t the answer. Or at least they can’t be expected to be impact players moving forward. However, there’s still a significant chance that if Paye and/or Odeyingbo prove themselves to be great edge rushers, the likes of Lewis, Turay and Banogu can carve out roles as supporting and rotational players. There is also still some time left in the season for Turay and Banogu to prove their worth. Unfortunately, Lewis’ injury will deprive him of that opportunity.
There have been some really positive signs this season with other young Colts players. The emergence of Taylor and Pittman as elite offensive players has been exciting and bodes well for the future. There have also been promising signs with Indianapolis’ young cornerbacks as Ya-Sin and Rodgers have taken significant strides forward. Blackmon’s injury was a real blow, but when he returns next year (and with Willis hopefully healthy again soon), the Colts could have a solid secondary next year if they can find a long-term replacement for Rhodes.
It will be up to Chris Ballard at the end of the season to learn the lessons that emerge from this season and find ways to answer questions at defensive end, left tackle, cornerback, and wide receiver.
There were so many things the Colts did brilliantly on Sunday, and many they did terribly. Establishing a 14-point lead was fantastic, but to lose it was awful. There was some great play calling on fourth down yet some glaring errors in the call for the very short Titans pick-six. On the other hand, there was everything in one play when Tyquan Lewis made an interception, suffered a season-ending injury, and (questionably) fumbled the ball.
There is a lot the Colts need to fix if they are to become the team they want to be, but there are also many good things they can build on. It’s crushing to lose two games in overtime to Tennessee and Baltimore that the Colts should have won. But I would caution Colts fans against some of the despair I’ve seen on Twitter over the past 24 hours.
This isn’t a team that needs to fire everyone, rip up its foundations and start all over again. That was in Spring 2018, and this team has become so much better since then. What the Colts do need to learn how to do is hold onto leads and beat top teams. It will be entirely reasonable for Colts fans to hold the teams’ hierarchy to account if they continue to fail to do that.
I said this year wasn’t the worst year for the Colts to underperform, but they don’t have too many of those years left. This team probably should win a Super Bowl before Nelson, Leonard and Buckner retire or leave the team. They’ve probably got about five years or so to do that.
We know Jim Irsay excitedly talks about winning multiple Super Bowls, but winning one has to be the key aim for this team in the next few years. If they are to have any hope of achieving that lofty goal, they’ll have to start winning close games and regularly beating top teams.
Beating some of the Bills, Buccaneers, and Cardinals this year would be a start and a great statement of intent. But next season, they’ll have to show progress by beating elite teams, getting to the playoffs, and winning playoff games. If they can do that, they’ll suddenly be a very dangerous team.