Indianapolis Colts proving they're not a playoff team -- because playoff teams close out games

INDIANAPOLIS – A debate to determine who should be blamed for the Indianapolis Colts’ latest second-half meltdown -- Sunday's 38-31 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- could go on for days.

Coach Frank Reich for taking the ball out of running back Jonathan Taylor’s hands late in the second and the entire third quarter?

Five turnovers, including four in the second half, by the Colts?

Dropped passes by wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal?

What about the defensive penalties that put the Buccaneers in scoring position?

The list could go on, but the reality is, playoff-caliber teams find ways to win games when they have double-digit leads against fellow playoff-caliber teams. The Colts (6-6) didn’t do it Sunday against the Buccaneers (8-3). They also didn’t do it against the Baltimore Ravens (8-3) and Tennessee Titans (8-4).

Maybe the Colts don't have the right makeup to be a playoff team after all.

“We all have to get a little bit better,” Reich said. “There’s a lot of good calls, but I have to make a great call. The perfect call in the perfect situation to put our guys in the best scenario to make that play. From a players’ standpoint, it comes down to that one play. Somebody make that miraculous catch. That big stop on defense, a great play on special teams.

"When you watch the teams that are doing it, they’re getting it from coaches and players at the level they need to win the game. I’m encouraged 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.”

The Colts should get back on the winning track against the Houston Texans on Sunday -- more like, they better get back on the winning track against the Texans if they expect to have any chance of remaining in the playoff hunt.

But if the Colts do miss the playoffs, which is a legit possibility, at some point in the offseason they’ll look back at those three losses to the Buccaneers, Ravens and Titans and think about the blown opportunities they had to win those games.

The playoff clock is ticking, whether the Colts and their ’1-0’ mentality want to admit it or not. They currently sit on the outside looking in on the playoff race with just five games left in the season.

“We were talking about it right after the game,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “It is narrowing down. We’re still with the pack, but we shot ourselves in the foot in being able to take another step in the right direction in bringing a little distance between us and the pack and making the playoffs. The margin for error is very small. We have to take it one week at a time.”

The Colts could have taken a substantial leap in the playoff race had they not lost to the Buccaneers, but now they're sitting 10th in the AFC, a loss behind the Chargers, who currently hold the seventh and final playoff spot in the conference.

It'll likely take at least 10 wins to make the playoffs. That may be tough for the Colts to accomplish considering three of their final five games are against teams currently with winning records, including games against the New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders, who are both in front of Indianapolis in the standings. The Buffalo Bills are the only team with a winning record the Colts have beaten this season.

“It’s always 1-0,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “1-0 each and every week. You get caught looking, and that’s when things go left.”

There’s no common denominator for why -- and how -- the Colts have shown an inability to close out games against playoff-caliber teams.

The defense wilted in the final 18 minutes when the Colts blew a 19-point lead against the Ravens in Week 5. Quarterback Carson Wentz threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Halloween loss to the Titans. And against the Buccaneers, the Colts simply beat themselves.

“Lets you know that you’re not far off,” Leonard said. “Have to make sure that we can’t be shooting ourselves in the foot. Going back to turnovers and penalties. Can’t have games like that. We have to step up when the game is on the line.”

Plenty of attention Sunday was put on the Colts shifting completely away from the running game to drop back to pass 27 straight times during the middle quarters of the game. Some of those plays came off run-pass-option designs, as Taylor, an MVP candidate, didn't get a second-half carry until the fourth quarter -- after they had blown their 10-point lead because the Buccaneers loaded up the box to stop the run.

But it's hard to beat any team, let alone one of the best in the NFL with one of the top defenses, when you turn the ball over five times like the Colts did Sunday. Four of those turnovers came in the second half when Tampa Bay made its comeback (though one was a Hail Mary interception on the final play).

“The turnovers absolutely killed us,” Wentz said. “A good team like that, they capitalize on those turnovers.”

Whatever approach the Colts take -- whether it's a 1-0 mindset or they do start watching the standings on a regular basis -- none of it will matter if they can't stop crumbling in the second half of games against teams just as good, or better, than them.

“The best teams play their best ball in November and December,” tight end Jack Doyle said. “We’ve got to weed out the mistakes.”