The Journal Gazette
Monday, December 02, 2019 1:00 am

For Colts, tiny margin of error vanishes

Mike Lopresti | For The Journal Gazette

Alas, is it time to cue the famous Jim Mora rant, after another tough day for the Indianapolis Colts?

“Playoffs! Don't talk about – playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game.”

It seems to fit the moment, after a 17-7 lead in the third quarter Sunday turned into a 31-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. That's how fast a 7-5 record and spot up toward the front of the line for the playoffs turned into 6-6, pushed further back in the queue.

After four losses in five games, the Colts are now ninth in the pecking order for six AFC playoff spots.

The Colts badly needed a win on Sunday. They even trotted out the road white uniforms for a different twist. Pfffffftttttttt. That would be the air coming out of the balloon. Can it be reinflated? True, the memory of 2018 is still around, when Indianapolis turned around 1-5 start to go 9-1 over the final 10 games. But this certainly feels different.

“Mr. Irsay had a little something to say in there,” coach Frank Reich said, alluding to the Colts owner dropping by the locker room afterward Sunday. His message probably wasn't the same as Mora's.

“Keep playing,” quarterback Jacoby Brissett reported.

“Just challenged us to do everything we can do to end 10-6, and usually 10-6 gets you in (the playoffs) a high percentage of the time,” Reich said.

That'll take some heavy lifting. Three of the final four games are on the road, including a trip to New Orleans. And there are three disquieting current features about Indianapolis.

No. 1, this sheet of names. T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, Eric Ebron, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell weren't in uniform Sunday. With a hurriedly reworked quarterback situation, the Colts began the season with a small margin for error, and had 10 of their first 11 games decided by a touchdown or less. The casualty list seems to have made the peril of the narrow margin even more acute.

No. 2, whether Brissett still isn't over his knee injury, or the NFL defenses are catching up to him, or both, his early-season magic has faded. A 14-3 touchdown-interception ratio has turned into 4-4 the past three games. He had two picked off Sunday. 

“When you break down what Jacoby did today, play by play, there was a lot of good football out there,” Reich said. And to be fair, Brissett has many weapons missing. But the mistakes are there, too.

No. 3, it's the strangest thing. If this season ends playoff-less, when the Colts look for the centerpiece to stand as the symbol of disappointment, they will not turn to the offense, nor the defense. But rather something no one saw coming.

Three things can happen when Adam Vinatieri tries a field goal – and two of them are bad.

He can make it. He's done a lot of that in his Hall of Fame career. Or miss it. He's done a lot of that this season. Or ...

The Titans could come rolling through the Colts protection like Black Friday shoppers going for a sale, block the kick and return it 63 yards for a touchdown. That was the dagger play, in a game tied 17-17, five minutes from the finish line.

“No one should ever come that clean through the D-gap,” Reich said. D-gap? That must be D, for disaster. He said he'd have to check the film to see what happened, though Margus Hunt took the blame afterward, saying he had concentrated on blocking the wrong guy. Another mistake. This team can't afford many mistakes.

Vinatieri had two other misses Sunday, but they were from 50-yards plus, and one of those was also partially blocked. That makes 14 wayward field goals or PAT attempts this season. There hasn't been a scarier horror show than the Colts lining up for a kick.

And so that scant margin for error has turned into none. It's finish 4-0, or else.

“When you lose, and when you lose at this time of year, I just think it's fair to say everything gets accentuated, as it should,” Reich said. “We know that. We take ownership of that.”

Doyle brought up the method the Colts used to scramble back last season. “The best thing we've got going is Frank's mantra of 1-0.”

They need 1-0, then 1-0, then another 1-0, then one last 1-0. But would now be the time to repeat they've just gone 1-4?

“You've got to be able to handle adversity,” receiver Zach Pascal said. “A man is defined by how he handles adversity.”

After Sunday, this qualifies as adversity.

“Most definitely.”

But they can recover?

“No question.”

Well, there might be one or two.

Mike Lopresti is a freelance writer whose columns appear periodically.

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