BREAKING: A league source tells me the NFL is investigating the possibility the Indianapolis Colts lost to the New England Patriots with a decimated, depleted football team Thursday night. In a related story, the rivalry is not back on. More to come…
They began the game with 44 semi-healthy players. By game's end, a 38-24 loss to the Patriots (what's new?), the Colts were down to roughly 39 players and were scouring the press box for ambulatory souls who may have played football in a previous life. They started the game without their best wide receiver (T.Y. Hilton), their best defensive player (Darius Leonard), their best running back (Marlon Mack), their top tight end (Jack Doyle), not to mention Nate Hairston, Hassan Ridgeway, Denzelle Good, Kenny Moore II and, honestly, I lost count at one point. By game's end, it was Andrew Luck and a bunch of guys in the Witness Protection Program.
They began the season with less depth than Kim Kardashian, and then it got worse. And worse. And worse.
An excuse? Absolutely not. A healthy Colts team probably would have gotten beat by the Patriots, who were celebrating the returns of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Indy has come to this house of horrors before with far better teams, and the result has always been the same. If you're keeping track at home, the Colts have lost to New England eight straight times, the last victory coming in 2009 during the Fourth-and-2 game. Honestly, it was a small miracle the Colts hung around this game, falling behind 24-3 at halftime, eventually pulling within one touchdown before finding more interesting, new ways to beat themselves with penalties, dropped passes and a fumble.
But if you don't think all the injuries provided something of an explanation -- I had to continuously check the flip card to figure out who some of these players were – well, I can't help you. It's tough enough for teams to play on the road on a Thursday night, but to do it four days after an overtime loss, and to play the Patriots with so many front-line players in civilian clothes, well, it's a small miracle it was as close as it was. In the end, say this much for the Colts: They compete. And they compete because they have an exceptional quarterback named Andrew Luck who was brilliant for a second straight week, doing all he could to will his team back into what set up as a one-sided affair.
"Damn, 44 dudes?'' Eric Ebron said with a look of amazement. "I've never heard of that.''
At least there was Luck, who I sometimes fear is going to be the Dan Marino of his generation – great numbers, no championship. For the second consecutive week, he was an absolute beast, nearly overcoming the fact his team has nothing in the way of a running game. In two games, four days apart, he threw the ball 121 times and once again put up gaudy numbers. Sadly, though, the Colts have as much trouble catching passes as they do staying healthy. And consider this tweet from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders: The Colts have allowed 38 or more points 13 times in Luck's 81 starts, or 16 percent of his games. Drew Brees: 9.1 percent. Aaron Rodgers: 7.4 percent. Peyton Manning: 6.8 percent. And the list goes on.
But, then, you get what you pay for, and the Colts defense is the cheapest in the entire league, taking up less than 25 percent of the salary cap, according to former NFL executive and current columnist Andrew Brandt. Take that group, then excise some of its best players due to injury, and 38-24 was the result.
"We're not going to win consistently until we learn how to get out of our own way,'' Luck said. "And that's not taking anything away from New England. They were the better team today and anybody who watched or played in the game knows that; it's self-evident. But when we look at ourselves, we're going to have to learn how not to lose if we want to give ourselves a chance to win.''
As long as Luck is healthy, the Colts have a puncher's chance, and they had a chance or two against the Patriots Thursday. But then Jordan Wilkins fumbles. Or Zach Pascal bobbles a pass that gets intercepted. And that, as they say, is that.
The first three weeks, my eyes told me that Luck wasn't quite right just yet. He dinked and dunked against Cincinnati and then was held below 200 passing yards against Washington and Philadelphia. But these last two weeks, he's been special, even if both efforts resulted in losses. Which is really the shame of the whole thing.
"I honestly feel like I've gotten so much better every game; I really do,'' Luck said. "At the same time, I know there is so much I can improve upon.''
It's crazy to think about: The last time the Colts were here in Foxboro, they were getting crushed in the AFC Championship Game, but felt like they were just a veteran or three away from taking the next step to the Super Bowl. Instead, they've gone 8-8, 8-8, 4-12 and now 1-4, nearly getting their franchise quarterback killed along the way.
I can't recall the last time the post-season looked and felt so terribly far away. General manager Chris Ballard has a lot of work to do, and it starts this offseason with him spending some of the cap money the Colts saved this past summer. Nor can he miss on his second-, third- and fourth-round picks, as he did last season. Quincy Wilson rarely plays, Tarell Basham got waived before the game and fourth-rounder Zach Banner did not make it out of the preseason.
At least the Colts have this on their side: They celebrate creatively. Did you see it? Indy was down 24-10 when Mathias Farley intercepted a Tom Brady pass. Then Farley and a number of defensive players ran roughly 50 yards down the field into the end zone, where they posed for a photograph like they'd just done something earth-shaking, like, you know, beat the Patriots. Again, down two touchdowns. In the third quarter. Am I the old man yelling at clouds, screaming at those loutish kids to get off my lawn? Maybe, but that act left me cold.
Farley, it should be noted, later failed to knock down a long TD pass when he had Josh Gordon double-covered with Chris Milton, then got stiff-armed into next week by running back Sony Michel as the rookie went in for another touchdown. He was later ruled out of the game with – you guessed it – a bad hamstring.
So I asked Reich later if he took issue with the Farley & Co. celebration.
"…I have to think about that one,'' he said. "I do feel good about our players celebrating when they make a play. We tell them that all the time. There's nothing wrong with showing a little enthusiasm. Surely, score and circumstance have to factor into that at some level. That's something to think through and evaluate.''
You know what would be worthy of celebration? Supporting Luck. Surrounding him with players worthy of his gifts, playing the game without making the kinds of mistakes that get you beat week after stinking week. They are 1-4 and while they've been a few plays away in every game, they are still 1-4. It is ultimately a loser's lament, and not one that anybody wants to hear.