Colts at crossroads: Make necessary plays to beat better teams (starting with Bills) or else

Indy Blitz

INDIANAPOLIS – The last game of Jonathan Taylor’s rookie season offered motivation for whatever was to come.

Do more, even when you believe you’ve done enough. Do whatever it takes to win in a hostile environment against a top-tier team in a gotta-have-it moment.

The Indianapolis Colts face another of those moments Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y. against the Buffalo Bills. They’ve dug themselves out of a 0-3 hole, clawed to 5-5 and are back in the thick of a convoluted AFC playoff picture.

But now the Bills once again stand in the way, just as they did 10 months ago in a first-round playoff game.

Taylor and the Colts did so much right, probably enough to win against most teams in a similar situation.

Taylor and Nyheim Hines were co-catalysts of a ground attack that churned for 163 yards. Ageless Philip Rivers passed for 309 yards and two touchdowns and led an offense that converted 11-of-21 third/fourth-down situations and piled up 472 yards.

The defense sacked Josh Allen twice, hit him four other times, allowed only 2-of-9 third-down conversions and limited the Bills to 96 yards on the ground.

But none of it was enough. More was required.

And Taylor knew it as he walked off the field and into the offseason.

“That was kind of that offseason fuel and that’s what you use it for,’’ he said Thursday. “And once you roll into camp, you start re-gearing your mind, preparing for your first preseason game, then the next one.

“Using that fuel to be able to train, mentally, physically in the offseason in order to be better this season.’’

When Taylor would be near the end of a workout session, his body might beg for a few less-strenuous reps. Yes, the first 10 were full-bore, but maybe ease up on Nos. 11 and 12.

What drove him?

I have to finish strong.

“Just thinking about that feeling,’’ Taylor said. “Whatever it takes to burst through this line on this last rep because that’s what it’s going to take to win that game that we didn’t win last year.’’

Do more. Do whatever it takes.

Through 10 games and dating back to the tailend of 2020, the Colts haven’t done enough when more was required.

The raw numbers are hard to ignore: they’ve lost eight straight games against teams that reached the ’20 postseason. That includes the Bills in January and five this season – Tennessee (twice), Baltimore, the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle. The last playoff team they handled? Green Bay in week 11 last season.

They’re beaten up on the bottom of the league. Their five wins have come against teams with a combined 12-34 record.

The Colts find themselves at a seasonal crossroads. They rekindled their playoff hopes by winning four of five, including consecutive blowouts of the New York Jets and Jacksonville, a pair of 2-7 teams.

Next is Buffalo, followed by Tampa Bay, which visits Lucas Oil Stadium Nov. 28. Each is 6-3.

According to Fivethirtyeight.com, the Colts have a 48% chance of reaching the playoffs. That bounces to 72% with a win over the Bills, but dips to 35% with a loss.

After last Sunday’s 23-17 win over the Jaguars, Reich mentioned the jumbled nature of the AFC and how he saw no reason the Colts couldn’t be one of those teams that makes a successful late push.

“Why not us?’’ he asked.

His optimism hadn’t waned midweek.

“I didn’t go into the team meeting saying, ‘It’s here for our taking.’ I think everybody knows that,’’ he said Wednesday. “This 1-0 thing is not just a mantra. It really is all that matters.

“It’s a week-to-week league, but as the head coach you have to think big picture sometimes and I really believe we have the guys to do that. It’s not easy, nothing about it is. This is a good opportunity we have this Sunday.’’

If, that is, the Colts finally are able to handle a top-level opponent.

Carson Wentz, though, was quick to dismiss the notion Indy hasn’t been able to stand up against playoff-caliber opposition.

“Yeah, this is the NFL,’’ he said. “Anybody can beat anybody. We don’t look at records. All that goes out the window when you start studying tape each week.

“You just try to go 1-0 no matter who it is.’’

But it does matter who it is.

The better the competition, the more a team must be on point. It doesn’t take a near-perfect game to beat Buffalo, the Titans, Baltimore, the Rams or Seattle, but mistakes – a turnover, a penalty, missed tackles, dropped passes, errant kicks, etc. – are magnified.

“Against a great team, the margin of error is very small,’’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “If you do make those mistakes, they’ll take advantage of it.’’

A normal game might involve 140-150 plays, including special teams. Often, a small percentage – five, six, maybe 10 – determines the outcome.

“It’s going to be a handful of plays,’’ Reich agreed. “It comes down to coaching and playing. Making one more play, making one more call, whatever it takes to win those games.

“I feel like we have played a lot of good football against very good teams and put ourselves in position, but just have not closed out those games. We have an opportunity to see if we can make some progress on that this week.’’

The Colts were good enough to bolt to double-digits lead in each of their last two losses. They led the Titans 14-0 in the first quarter, and held 22-3 third-quarter and 25-9 fourth-quarter leads at Baltimore.

They couldn’t finish.

Wentz suffered a pair of crippling interceptions against Tennessee. Against the Ravens, the defense was unable to make one or two plays that truly mattered in the second half – Baltimore scored on four straight possessions, including overtime, and added a pair of 2-point conversions to complete its improbable comeback – and kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who suffered a hip injury in pregame warm-ups, missed a PAT, had a 37-yard field-goal attempt blocked and pulled a potential game-winning 47-yarder wide left as time expired in regulation.

The playoff loss to the Bills followed a similar script. Buffalo entered the game as roughly a 6.5-point favorite, but the Colts were an uncooperative underdog.

Again, they did more than enough to pull off the shocker, but just enough wrong to keep it from becoming a reality.

“There were five or six plays in that game that I can pull off – I’m not going to – right out of my pocket in a second and say, ‘If we make any one of these plays and we probably win the game,’’’ Reich said. “That’s always the way it is.

“It’s always been that way and always will be that way.’’

A few that are impossible to ignore:

  • Rivers missing an open, diving Michael Pittman Jr. in the left corner of the end zone on fourth-and-goal at the 4. The Colts led 10-7 midway through the second quarter and Reich was convinced field goals weren’t going to beat the Bills.
  • On the ensuing drive, the Bills faced a fourth-and-3 at the Indy 26 with 37 seconds remaining in the half. Allen used a hard count, hoping to entice the Colts to flinch, and defensive end Kemoko Turay obliged. Given a new set of downs instead of possibly setting for a field goal, Josh Allen took a QB draw 16 yards, then kept it around the right side for a 4-yard TD.
    It was a potential 14-point swing that left the Bills on top at the half, 14-10.
  • Blankenship bouncing a 33-yard field goal off the right upright on the Colts’ first second-half possession. On third-and-7 before the damaging miss, Rivers threw behind Pittman.
    The Bills answered with Allen’s 35-yard TD to Stefon Diggs for a 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
  • Rivers’ TD passes to Zach Pascal and Jack Doyle brought the Colts to within 27-24 with 6:13 remaining, and the defense nearly – nearly is the operative word – came up with a game-changing play with just under 4 minutes remaining. On first-and-10 at the Indy 34, Tyquan Lewis got immediate pressure on Allen and Denico Autry followed with a 17-yard sack that forced an Allen fumble. Instead of a Colt covering it, right tackle Daryl Williams secured the football.
  • The Colts had one last opportunity with 2:30 remaining, but could only reach the Bills 47. They might have mounted a stronger threat if Hines hadn’t dropped a pass from Rivers along the right sideline on a second-10 with 1 minute to play.

Make those handful of plays, or else.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

NBA Stats

Trending Stories