INDIANAPOLIS — There’s always a silver lining as long as the AFC South is part of the equation.
Sunday night, the Indianapolis Colts remained in the thick of the division race. For those who’ve already been reduced to scoreboard watching four weeks into the season, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans lost.
Which brings us to that silver lining on another dark afternoon for the Colts.
Even with the latest script-following 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium – poor start; three more turnovers, including two by a suddenly careless Matt Ryan; a running game that has lost its way; late comeback that fell short – the Colts still are relevant, so to speak, in the AFC South. They’re 1-2-1, just a half-step behind the 2-2 Titans and Jaguars.
There. Feel better?
Didn’t think so. That’s because there’s little optimism surrounding the Colts, their futile second-half comeback notwithstanding.
Owner Jim Irsay has made his angst regarding the Titans’ recent dominance in the series known – he’s tired of them beating his team’s (expletive) – and Sunday only turned up the dial. Tennessee won for the fifth time in the last six meetings and the fourth straight time in Indy.
And then there’s this: the Colts have trailed by at least 17 points in each of their three AFC South games this season. They’ve also been outscored 64-16 in the first half of their last four games against divisional rivals, dating back to the humiliating loss at Jacksonville that ended 2021.
“That’s ridiculous,’’ running back Nyheim Hines said. “What was it halftime?’’
The Titans, up 24-3 midway through the second quarter, were in control 24-10.
“That’s ridiculous,’’ Hines continued. “We can’t keep doing that. We have a great team and we keep coming back and almost coming back, but that’s not a position you want to be in.’’
Added tight end Mo Alie-Cox: “You’re down 24-3, you get a little more predictable. You can’t cannonball Jonathan as much. Teams can dial it up even more.
“It just puts us in tough situations.’’
Ryan agreed, even though he aided the Titans’ quick start with two more turnovers. He lost a fumble when former Colt Denico Autry whipped right guard Quenton Nelson for a sack and suffered his fifth interception when nose tackle Teair Tart tipped his pass, then secured it.
Tennessee capitalized each time with short-field touchdowns, which again was following the script. Those were the Colts’ seventh and eighth turnovers of the season – No. 9 would come in the fourth quarter, a killer fumble by Jonathan Taylor on 3rd-and-1 at the Titans 24 – and they’ve been turned into 42 points.
Through four games, Ryan has five interceptions and a league-high nine fumbles, with three lost.
“Turnovers are always . . . they’re one of the, if not the most important one or two most critical stats when it comes to winning ballgames or at least giving yourself a chance to win,’’ Ryan said. “I’ve got to do a better job of protecting it.
“We collectively have to do a better job protecting it, and I think if we can do that, we can be pretty good.’’
Until then, they’re a collective mess.
Injuries also are becoming an issue. All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard made his first appearance on the season after undergoing back surgery in June, but left the game in the second quarter with a concussion after being hit by fellow ‘backer Zaire Franklin. Also, running back Jonathan Taylor suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter that might jeopardize his availability for Thursday night’s road test at Denver.
Clearly, this is a team teetering.
Hines spent several minutes in the locker room filleting an offense that got very little done early. The first four possessions: lost fumble, punt, field goal, interception.
“We have to start better,’’ he said.
The Colts have been outscored 65-23 in the first half this season, including 27-10 in the first quarter.
“Every game we’ve had to come from behind,’’ Hines said. “We didn’t score at all in Jacksonville.
“It’s on the offense. The defense did a great job. It’s on us. It’s on the offense. I don’t think (the Titans) scored in the second half. We have to stop putting ourselves in holes. That’s what it’s all about.’’
Hines’ tunnel vision was understandable, but it let the defense off the hook.
Yes, Gus Bradley’s group pitched a shutout in the second half. In fact, after piling up 213 yards and 16 first downs in the first half, the Titans were limited to 28 yards and three first downs on 20 plays over the final two quarters.
But the fact remains the defense yielded three touchdowns and a field goal on Tennessee’s first four possessions. Two were aided by the Ryan turnovers at the Indy 32 and 28.
As much as Frank Reich attributed last Sunday’s 20-17 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs to a collective effort, the loss to the Titans was equally a shared failure.
He credited the Titans, but also pointed an accusing finger at his team.
“It’s hard to win a game when you lose the turnover battle the way we did and started the way we did, put ourselves in the hole,’’ Reich said. “Just not good enough.
“I’m proud of how we fought back, gave ourselves a chance at the end, but at the end of the day, not good enough. We just need to play better. We need to execute better.’’
Ryan passed for 356 yards with pair of touchdowns to Alie-Cox (14 and 7 yards), and was 15-of-17 for 186 yards with one TD in the second half.
But his offense was rendered one-dimensional by Tennessee’s No. 29-ranked run defense. The Colts finished with 38 yards on 23 carries, their meekest output since week 12 of 2015 (27 yards on 26 attempts in a 25-12 win over Tampa Bay).
Taylor, the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, was limited to 42 yards on 20 attempts. That was his lowest output since being held to 12 yards on seven carries by the Titans his rookie season of 2020.
“The run game has got to get better,’’ Reich said. “We’re always tweaking it and trying to get little things, but we’re not getting the production.’’
To add injury to insult – literally – Taylor suffered an ankle injury on his final, critical carry. On 3rd-and-1 at the Tennessee 24 with 8:49 remaining, he disappeared into a pile of Titans and lost control of the football.
Taylor wasn’t certain what happened on the play.
“There was a lot of commotion going on,’’ he said. “Things happen so fast on the field.’’
The defense gave the Colts one more opportunity when Kwity Paye sacked Tannehill on 3rd-and-8, forcing a punt with just under 5 minutes remaining.
But a team that didn’t start, couldn’t finish.
After Ryan and rookie Alec Pierce collaborated on a 44-yard reception for a 1st-and-10 at the Tennessee 22 with 4 minutes remaining, the drive fizzled. Autry skirted left tackle Matt Pryor for a sack of Ryan on third down and Chase McLaughlin pulled a 51-yard field goal wide left.
Reich did his best to remain upbeat despite yet another slow start – in the game and on the season – by his team.
“We’ve got to put this behind us,’’ he said. “Still feel all of our goals are out in front of us.’’
That’s the benefit of residing in the AFC South. You’re never out of it.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.