Colts Blow 14-point Lead As Defense Implodes In Loss At Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay tight end O.J. Howard hauls in a long pass in Sunday's 38-35 home win over the Indianapolis Colts.Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

Phillip B. Wilson

There were too many reasons why the Indianapolis Colts could have revived their faint playoff pulse in an eventful Sunday at Tampa Bay.

But the visitors instead followed a familiar season trend in which they’ve been ahead or tied in the fourth quarter only to lose a game that should have been won.

The Colts’ 38-35 road loss to the Buccaneers was undeniably bitter when considering the visitors scored a season high in points and benefited from four Tampa Bay turnovers including a Darius Leonard 80-yard TD interception return.

It wasn’t enough because the Colts defense couldn’t get enough stops on a Buccaneers big-play offense led by enigmatic quarterback Jameis Winston, who made up for adding three interceptions to his league-high by passing for a career-high 456 yards and four TDs. He also ran for a score.

And Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians revealed afterward that Winston played the second half with a tiny fracture in his right passing hand. 

After Colts rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin struck the right upright on a 47-yard field goal, Winston drove the Bucs to the game-winning score, a 12-yard TD pass to wide receiver Breshad Perriman with 3:51 remaining.

The Colts drove to midfield and turned the ball over on downs. The Bucs then ran out the clock.

In a tale of two 6-7 teams heading in different directions, the Colts lost for the fifth time in six games to all but eliminate themselves from AFC playoff contention while the Buccaneers won their third in a row, but were eliminated from the NFC playoff hunt by a Minnesota Vikings victory.

Even more disheartening for the Colts this day was the fact that AFC South Division leader Houston (8-5) lost at home to Denver, so the door was left ajar to make up ground.

Alas, this has been the Colts’ script for more than a month now. They’ve led or been tied in the final quarter of each of their last five losses.

The Indianapolis-era Colts tied a dubious team record for most points scored in a loss, accomplished four other times since 1984.

NFL teams had won 38 consecutive games when scoring at least 35 points and enjoying a plus-three turnover advantage. It’s the first time the Colts have lost with a plus-three turnover edge since 1991.

Despite not having four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton — the Colts are now 1-9 without him since his 2012 selection — quarterback Jacoby Brissett passed for 251 yards and two TDs. Although he didn’t have an ideal completion percentage in making good on 19 of 36 throws, Brissett hit on several big plays to breathe life into a struggling offense.

Colts wide receiver Marcus Johnson caught three passes for 105 yards including a 42-yard touchdown. Wide receiver Zach Pascal also had five catches for 74 yards with one TD.

When Brissett hit Pascal on a 12-yard scoring play, then the two hooked up again for the two-point conversion, the Colts led 35-21 with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter.

But no lead is safe for a Colts team that has now been involved in 11 one-score games.

Back came Winston, who didn’t have injured Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans due to a hamstring injury suffered on a 61-yard TD reception in the first quarter. Winston threw touchdown passes to four different receivers, including a 17-yarder to tight end Justin Watson to begin the second-half comeback from 14 points down.

A Colts defense that had played well in recent weeks continually struggled in pass coverage. Despite Leonard’s two interceptions, the secondary was often in disarray as defenders looked at each other assessing blame for why Bucs receivers were wide open in obvious blown coverages.

The 38 points allowed was a season high for the Colts.

In a season that has unraveled in part because of disappointments in the kicking game, McLaughlin’s miss loomed large. The rookie, claimed off waivers to replace the injured Adam Vinatieri who missed his first game since 2009, had converted a 50-yard field goal in the opening quarter as well as another short kick and all three extra points.

His 47-yarder had plenty of leg, but drifted right and bounced off the upright. Vinatieri, who might not return due to a left leg injury, had missed 14 kicks in the worst season of his career. Seeing yet another miss by someone else, especially when needed most, continued another Colts season trend.

The Colts are two games behind the Texans with three to play and don’t have the head-to-head tiebreaker, nor do they have tiebreaker advantages in a bunched field contending for the final AFC wild-card playoff spot.

So even if the Colts won out — which seems unlikely with their next game a week from Monday night at New Orleans (10-3) — it’s unlikely that 9-7 would be enough to qualify for the postseason.

Colts fans didn’t need another reminder as to why everything unraveled this season. But they got one on Sunday.