INDIANAPOLIS -- From 5-2 and in control of the AFC South to 6-7 and a 3% chance to make the playoffs.
That’s what has happened to the Indianapolis Colts.
They lost their best receiver to injuries, and their past two opponents closed out games by outscoring the Colts by a combined 34-0.
The Colts have not been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so you could say there’s still hope. But the reality is that the Colts will likely have to win their final three games and get help from a lot of other teams to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The good news is the Colts’ final two games are against teams that have basically thrown in the towel: Carolina and Jacksonville.
The bad news for the Colts is the next opponent on the schedule -- on the road on Monday -- is the New Orleans Saints, who at 9-3 have clinched the NFC South and are playing for playoff seeding. Indianapolis will be eliminated from postseason contention with a loss to the Saints.
“The outcomes are the outcomes,” Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said. “You look at the good and the bad. You can’t just throw it to the side. You have to look what went well, what went wrong. We know going into next week we're going against a great, great team with [Saints quarterback] Drew Brees.”
After a victory over Denver four days before Halloween, the season looked promising. The Colts and Texans were tied atop the division at 5-2, and Indianapolis had the tiebreaker, having beaten Houston earlier in the season.
Life without quarterback Andrew Luck, who retired in August, was looking pretty good.
Then everything changed. Top receiver T.Y. Hilton has been out for five of the past six games, and there’s a chance that he won't play again this season because of a calf injury. There have been other injuries and special-teams mistakes -- including Adam Vinatieri's misses -- that have proven costly.
Tennessee and Tampa Bay each closed out their games by outscoring the Colts 17-0. Earlier in the season, the Colts closed out the Titans, Falcons, Texans and Broncos. Now they’re the team that seems incapable of finishing.
“It hurts, man,” Colts linebacker Anthony Walker said. “Think about the first seven games. We’re 5-2 because we find a way to win those close games. We’re -- what? -- 1-5 the last six games? That’s hard to believe. It hurts, but that’s what we’re putting on tape. We’re better than that, but like they say, ‘You’re only as good as your record says you are.’”
Tight end Jack Doyle said, “For so long, we started every game slow, and then we’d come back. Now we’re not doing a great job closing, yeah. I don’t know, it’s tough.”
What has made the past two games even worse is that the Colts have seven sacks and have forced six turnovers. The previous 38 teams to score at least 35 points and be plus-three in turnover margin won. Then the Colts lost Sunday in Tampa.
“When we create that many turnovers and get that many sacks, you would think those would be winning numbers,” Leonard said. “But they haven’t been enough. We have to be able to close games.”
Colts coach Frank Reich was surprised by those numbers as well.
“How does that happen?” Reich asked. “How do you get that many turnovers and score that many points and still get a loss? Here’s the thing, our units are together: offense, defense, special teams. That’s one thing I love about this team. There’s no, I don’t even want to say finger-pointing. There’s no, ‘Well, it was the offense today or the defense this day or special teams that day.’ We know we’re all in this together."
At some point in the offseason, while they're watching the playoffs from home for the fourth time in five seasons, the Colts will likely look back and think about the opportunities they squandered.
“You have to put everything into perspective,” Walker said. “You never want to focus on things you can’t control. We’ll focus on January when it comes, but right now, we’ll focus on Monday Night Football."