INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — This column demands nuance. And frankly, nuance is not something sports columnists do well, or prefer to do in the wake of an NFL game.
If the team you're covering is awful, as was the case last Sunday, a writer can let the team have it with both barrels, and possibly a machete for good measure. If the team you’re covering is great, you can praise them and gush over them and generally treat them like living gods.
Sunday's 16-13 overtime loss to Arizona, though, this one requires nuance rather than manic overreaction. This one requires praise and criticism: Praise for playing a lights-out defensive game, praise for a new quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, who gave his team a chance to win a game and thus avoid an 0-2 start for the fourth straight season…Criticism for making silly mistakes and committing mindless penalties down the stretch, helping blow a 10-0 first quarter lead and then a 13-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
They played well enough to win and consign last week’s wretched performance to the dustbin of history. And they played just poorly enough, made just enough mistakes, to lose a game they truly should have won. This is how it is for a young, newly-formed team that is missing four of its five top players to injuries: The margin of error is infinitesimal, barely perceptible to the human eye.
These are the kinds of things that cannot happen if the Colts, still Luck-less, still missing Vontae Davis, Ryan Kelly, Clayton Geathers and Chester Rogers, are going to win a single game – even against next week's opponent, the Cleveland Browns.
- They cannot drop passes – see: Donte Moncrief. Eight targets, two catches.
- They cannot dive to the turf a half-yard before the first-down marker when there's clearly room to take another step and take the spotting decision out of the officials' hands – see: T.Y. Hilton.
- They cannot have first-and-goal at the Arizona 7-yard line and immediately get whistled for a false start – looking at you, Jack Mewhort – thus limiting themselves to a field goal rather than a touchdown that would have opened up a 17-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
- They cannot surrender a first down on a third-and-20 play with the Cardinals trailing 13-3 and in increasingly desperate straits. Then throw in a questionable roughing-the-passer call on Jabaal Sheard and add 15 more yards. "I thought I hit him in the arm," Sheard said later. "I saw the flag and was looking around, thinking they'd called them (the Cardinals) for holding." One play later, the Cardinals were in the end zone.
- They cannot run into the punt returner when he's calling a fair catch – yes, you, Kenny Moore II – giving Arizona good field position, which they turned into a game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Bad teams make their own bad luck, and here was a doozy: On third-and-1 at the 24-yard line and the Colts leading 13-3, Carson Palmer fumbled the snap, the play was aborted, and then Palmer picked it up and ran it forward for the first down. Four plays later – a drive that included the Sheard roughing the passer – the Cardinals scored their only touchdown and pulled within 13-10.
The fourth quarter found the Colts making every attempt to NOT lose rather than win this game against a Cardinals team that is missing several of its star players as well. Arizona not only outgained the Colts 161-60 in the fourth quarter, but Indy committed five penalties for 45 yards, and all of them, it seemed, were backbreakers.
"You can't beat yourself," Chuck Pagano said. "If we punch that one in from first-and-goal at the 7-yard line, you're going up 17-3. It was a bad play on the punt (too). A young guy (Moore II) covering a punt. He's a young player and he'll learn and he'll grow from it. And we'll be better."
Said Frank Gore: "We have to find a way to win. It isn't we got blown out last week, come back, lose by three…we lost. Almost winning isn't going to get you in the playoffs."
Cue Jim Mora: "PLAYOFFS!! PLAYOFFS?!!!"
And yet, there were some things – a lot of things, really – that made you feel exponentially better about this team than you did last week, when fans were ready to trade their tickets for spoiled milk. The defense was terrific, and while there were some mistakes, the kids in the secondary (Quincy Wilson, Malik Hooker and Nate Hairston) played well enough to walk out of the stadium winners. The front seven put pressure on Palmer, sacking him four times. The run defense was stout for a second straight week, limiting Arizona to 3.3 yards per carry. Jack Doyle was Jack Doyle, the one receiver Brissett could count upon to catch the ball, catching all eight passes thrown his way for 79 yards.
Brissett? Yeah, he threw the interception that spelled the Colts' ultimate doom, but by and large, he managed the game beautifully and gave Indy a shot in this game. A week ago, the Colts were 0-for-10 on third downs; this week, they were 8-of-18. Brissett finished 20-of-37 for 216 yards and the late interception, a 60.2 rating. Not great, but this is a second-year player who had just six practices under his belt before starting Sunday. There are still some elements of the playbook he's not yet comfortable running.
"He's got great poise," Pagano said of Brissett. "Made great decisions. Hung in there. He stands tall in the pocket. He's tough as damned nails. He could extend some plays…The coaches did a great job with him and he did a great job."
He was good, except on the play that killed the Colts in overtime.
"I saw it; I saw it as soon as I let it (the pass) go," Brissett of the Tyrann Mathieu interception. "You know, a dumb decision. You can't make those types of plays, especially down the stretch when you need it the most. I knew better than that…I left it behind him (receiver Kamar Aiken). You know, it was just a bad play all around. I take credit for that. I just have to know, which I do know, to make a better decision."
If the Colts accomplished anything Sunday, it's that they found Andrew Luck's backup quarterback, not to mention the guy who will start while Luck is rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. The Scott Tolzien Era is over, and not a second too soon.
Like I said: Some good, some bad, just enough bad to lose a game that could have, should have won.
Gosh, I hate nuance.