INDIANAPOLIS -- Getting to the playoffs was never going to be easy for the Indianapolis Colts. Their style of play isn’t conducive to blowing out teams, and every game this season has been decided by seven points or fewer.
But they had a four-week stretch on the schedule, starting in Week 8, that presented a favorable opportunity for their playoff hopes. It's four games against teams with losing records: Denver, Pittsburgh, Miami and Jacksonville.
The perfect scenario would have put them at 8-2 or 7-3 heading into a Thursday night rematch with Houston on Nov. 21.
So much for that.
The Colts scraped by -- as they’ve been doing all season -- in their victory over the Broncos in Week 8 before kicking issues, drops, poor quarterback play and a lack of discipline cost them in losses to the Steelers and the Dolphins. Now the Colts are 5-4 heading into Sunday's game against 4-5 Jacksonville.
At some point later this season, possibly in December or early January, the Colts could be looking back at this two-game losing streak as the reason they missed the playoffs.
“You can’t explain it," tight end Eric Ebron said after Sunday's loss to Miami. "You have to beat the teams you are supposed to beat, and you have to beat the teams that people say you can beat. At least, that’s how you stay relevant in this league. We didn’t beat a team that we were supposed to beat today.”
One of the first steps in getting back on track is having quarterback Jacoby Brissett return to the lineup. Brissett has missed the past six-plus quarters because of a sprained MCL in his left knee suffered in the first half at Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. Veteran Brian Hoyer struggled as Brissett’s replacement, throwing three interceptions against the Dolphins on Sunday.
Colts coach Frank Reich said the team is optimistic that Brissett will be available Sunday.
“If Jacoby is healthy, he is our starting quarterback,” Reich said. “We will get to [practice] Wednesday and see how he is doing, but we are encouraged and optimistic. We will make that decision Wednesday, but he will get as many reps as he can. I’m not going to try and make any secret about it. I’m really not. If he is practicing and taking full practice, at that point we will say, ‘We are ready to go. He is our starter, and we are going forward.’ But we will wait until Wednesday to make that determination.”
There’s still uncertainty about how much longer receiver T.Y. Hilton will be out because of a calf strain. The Colts coach described him as being “day-to-day,” which is a step in the right direction considering he was supposed to be out as long as a month. Hilton missed the past two games -- and three total this season -- and the Colts are 0-7 without him in his career.
The kicking situation remains fluid for the Colts. After veteran Adam Vinatieri missed his 11th kick of the season on Sunday, the team is no longer backing him with the certainty that it did earlier in the season. Reich on Monday reiterated what he said after the Miami game, saying, “It’s all being evaluated every week, specifically this week.” He planned to meet with general manager Chris Ballard about the roster on Monday night.
It isn't time to panic for the Colts when it comes to their record. They are about to start a string of three straight games against AFC South opponents, with two of those at home. They are currently a game behind first-place Houston in the AFC South, but beating their division counterparts the next three weeks will still put them in strong playoff position.
However, if they miss the playoffs by a game or two, the Colts will be kicking themselves about what happened in early November, especially against the Dolphins, who were winless just two weeks ago.
“We know that anytime you go through the two losses that we just had -- I know the kind of guys we have in our locker room,” Reich said. “I mean, I have zero concern about how we’re going to bond as a team, coaches and players. There’s going to be no finger-pointing. Coaches aren’t going to be finger-pointing at players, and players aren’t going to be finger-pointing at coaches. We’re going to draw together. We’re going to use this to propel us forward, really focus it all just on this next week and put up our best performance of the year against Jacksonville.”