INDIANAPOLIS — The bodies of defeated Indianapolis Colts defenders were stiff-armed everywhere by “King Henry.”
A makeshift offensive line had Colts quarterback Philip Rivers rattled and reverting to his risk-taking nature in throwing off his back foot because there wasn’t a clean pocket in which to step up and throw.
Yeah, without a doubt, the Colts’ 45-26 home loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium seemed to provide discouraging significance for the remainder of the season.
It’s only one game, Rivers reminded, and a lot can happen in the next five games. But what if a lot of that is bad?
While the Colts have shown resiliency in being able to rely on decent depth to get to 7-4, the reality from this game is that a second-ranked defense just isn’t the same without All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. He was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, which means the Colts are hoping, perhaps praying, No. 99 is back in the fold in a couple of games.
He’s that important. The Titans’ Derrick Henry slammed that point home with an exclamation point as he gashed the Colts for 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The NFL rushing leader, a.k.a. "King Henry," had 140 yards and three scores in the first half as the visitors built a safe 35-14 lead.
What’s equally troubling is how the Colts, who had kept up at 14-all in a defenseless start on both sides, weren’t the same after 10th-year offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo exited with a knee injury in the second quarter. That meant backup Le’Raven Clark entered, and that trusty O-line which was already without Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly couldn’t get the job done.
Rivers struggled to complete even the shortest of passes at times. He was lucky the Titans dropped an easy-pick six on an ill-advised pass to the right flat. The 38-year-old passer couldn’t play hero with the pieces around him falling apart.
The Colts placed rookie running back and leading rusher Jonathan Taylor on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday, which meant no run game this day, just 56 yards on 21 carries (2.7 yards per attempt). Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett provided positives with a couple of short-yardage TD runs, but that was it. Not near enough fingers to plug so many holes in a dam that was breaking.
No Taylor, like no Buckner nor Castonzo nor Kelly nor defensive end Denico Autry nor outside linebacker Bobby Okereke, had a way of manifesting into a bigger problem. The Colts had just two running backs in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Because Hines is a diminutive third-down specialist suited for catching short passes and utilizing his speed in space and not blocking, Wilkins had to be on the field more to try to shore up that leaky O-line. Wilkins injured his ribs, but soldiered on.
If this game was all about a short-handed Colts defense allowing a season-high 35 points in the first half and 45 overall, well, there’s reason to think this side of the ball can regroup — especially when Buckner returns. But it’s not just the defense that was troubling. If Castonzo misses any kind of extended time, Clark isn’t the solution unless the Colts commit tight end Jack Doyle to blocking next to him to make sure the left end of that O-line doesn’t collapse too often. Since Castonzo was drafted in the first round in 2011, the Colts are 1-12 when he's unable to play. That's a rather sobering stat.
So the Colts will bite their lips for some ugly film review on Monday, then head coach Frank Reich will try to be a calming influence in assuring everyone that the mistakes are correctible and his faith in this team is unwavering.
But the next game is at the Houston Texans (4-7), who as fate would have it, are playing their best ball with two consecutive wins. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has 15 TD passes and no interceptions in the last six games. Watson almost led the Texans to a road upset of the Titans in a 42-36 overtime loss last month. The Titans forced overtime in the final seconds with an A.J. Brown TD catch - the same Brown who scored twice on Sunday against the Colts with a 69-yard reception and onside kick-return score.
Watson can't be given all day to create, and the Colts’ pass rush was almost non-existent against the Titans with only one sack and two quarterback hits. They had a third-down sack negated by a Rock Ya-Sin penalty, but you get the point. And the one sack the Colts had wasn’t the result of a tackle — linebacker Darius Leonard was the closest pursuer when quarterback Ryan Tannehill scrambled out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.
If the playoffs were today — yeah, it’s that time of year for the phrase — the Colts would be in as the last AFC wild-card entry. But analyzing tiebreakers and taking into account the Titans’ schedule as well as who the Colts have to play suggests the best these Colts can hope for is maybe 10-6 and a wild card.
Reich's team still has to travel to Las Vegas to play the Raiders, who are in the hunt at 6-5 and have lost two in a row including a disaster Sunday at Atlanta, but coach Jon Gruden’s bunch is much stronger at home.
And lest anyone forget, the Colts still have to visit Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0), the NFL’s last unbeaten, in Week 16.
So the Colts likely must win at home against the Texans and Jaguars in December, then prevail at least once on the road to have a legitimate playoff chance. It’s doubtful they can catch the Titans, barring a Tennessee collapse, because coach Mike Vrabel’s team has tiebreaker advantages.
That’s why Sunday sure seemed far more important than only one game.
The Colts are missing two vitally important players in Buckner and Castonzo, and without them, December could provide more numbing results that relegate this team to a playoff near-miss.