INDIANAPOLIS – The calendar has struck December, which means for the fourth time in as many seasons under coach Frank Reich the Indianapolis Colts find themselves right in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
The Colts currently are 10th in the AFC. The top seven teams in each conference make the playoffs. So that means Indianapolis could also be missing the postseason for the second time under Reich and for the fifth time in the past seven seasons.
Luckily for the Colts, though, the playoffs don’t start for another six weeks, and they have five more games to try to move into the top seven.
“Almost zero room for error,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
And they have strictly themselves to blame for it.
The Colts find themselves on the window ledge on the outside peeping in on the playoff teams because they’ve consistently failed at being able to close out games against good teams, the type of teams they would face if they’re fortunate enough to make the postseason.
Reich, for the first time this season, acknowledged earlier this week the significance of losses to the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers after having double-digit leads in the game.
“What’s not encouraging is that we have had three games against playoff teams that we’ve had double-digit leads, and we haven’t been able to close those games out,” he said Monday. “The responsibility for that starts with me as the head coach. I’ve got to do a better job.
"I’m not just the offensive play caller, I’m the head coach, so I’ve got to do a better job of getting us ready – that when we get in those moments in the second half, whatever phase it is, offense, defense, special teams, we need to do a better job collectively of closing out games against these good teams.”
Turnovers crippled the Colts in losses to the Titans and Buccaneers, and Reich second guessed himself on some late-game play calling in their loss to the Ravens, when they blew a 19-point lead in the final 18 minutes.
So much was made of the Colts dropping back to pass 26 straight times against the Buccaneers. Some have even argued that was the reason the Colts blew a 10-point lead. The reality is, though, it’s extremely difficult to beat any team, let alone the defending Super Bowl champions led by future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady when you turn the ball over five times like Indianapolis did in Week 12.
“We go toe-to-toe with the defending champions with five [turnovers], and we still put up 31 points,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. If we want to be a good team, we’ve got to understand that we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to understand that we take control of the game when we’ve got that opportunity.
“When we have their backs against the wall, we’ve got to keep the gas on. You can’t stop pressuring, you can’t do – you’ve got to make sure you’re still doing the same thing that you were doing in the first half and getting off the field with that same mentality. … You have to play the whole 60 minutes of great defense, and if you want to win ballgames, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
The Colts, like just about every team in any sport, are at their best when they don’t turn the ball over. Nine of their 15 turnovers this season occurred in those three losses to the Buccaneers, Ravens and Titans -- teams that will make the playoffs barring a late-season collapse. Twelve of their 15 turnovers happened in five of their six losses this season.
“It can be mental toughness, it can be discipline, it can be a lot of things,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “[The opponent] gets paid too. The opposing team obviously does a good job in some of those scenarios and making those tough for us too. So it just comes down to execution, and it can be a handful of things as to why sometimes it doesn’t go our way.”
Two of the Colts' final five games (New England and Arizona) are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. Another (Las Vegas) is against a team in front of them in the AFC standings. Going 4-1 in that stretch may be enough to get the Colts into the playoffs. Closing out with anything less likely won't be enough, but the Colts will basically have no chance to get in if they continue to turn the ball over.
“Listen, we acknowledged it, the margin of error in these last five games is slim,” Reich added. “It’s a slim margin of error.”