The Herald Bulletin
---- — It was cold. It was gray. And the Indianapolis Colts had their collective horseshoe helmets handed to them.
But hey, congratulations on that division title!
Was the glass half empty or half full Sunday for the Colts? The good news came a thousand miles away, where Tennessee's loss in Denver clinched the AFC South for Indianapolis. But here in this zip code, another shredding. And once again, reason to wonder what has happened to this team since October, besides the obvious injuries.
"You never like to backdoor your way into the playoffs," Robert Mathis was saying after the Cincinnati Bengals blew past the Colts 42-28. "You want to build momentum, get things on the right track and keep them on the right track. But I'm not going to sneeze at a division title."
Nor should he. Indianapolis is champion of the South — but with issues.
This was the Colts' chance, against a fellow AFC contender, to show they were nearing postseason form. They didn't. For the third time in five games, an opponent put up 38 or more points. So what if Andrew Luck's passing arm went nuclear the second half? Seldom are 326 yards and four touchdowns so irrelevant.
"The Bengals beat our butts fair and square. There's no way to really mince those words," Luck said. "I don't want to get into where we are, who we are as a team. But I do know we are what we put on film, so we'll have to go back and look at that."
It was an afternoon of reward and punishment. Sunday gave the Colts the South, but also very likely stuck them with the No. 4 seed for good. Unable to go forward or backward in the playoff pecking order, Indianapolis' final three games will likely be academic.
Not that there isn't something to do. At the moment, as the finish line nears, it is hard not to conclude that this team simply has too many flaws and too many missing pieces to last long in January. The Colts are on the clock to fix whatever ails them.
"We've got some things to clean up," Chuck Pagano said.
They can start with the affinity for falling behind — apparently a habit harder to break than snacking before bed. The Colts are division champions despite being outscored 191-134 in the first half, and were down 14-0 Sunday at halftime. They have tried everything but voodoo.
"It's only mental if you let it get to that stage," Luck said. "I know we haven't. I don't think we will."
Then they can stop the leaks on defense. That has led to some fearful poundings, to the point that the Colts are atop the South despite being outscored 316-313 this season. Division champions are not supposed to own minus point differentials.
They can recharge the grit that helped them endure bad turns in the road.
Sunday's loss had zebra hoof prints on it. The Colts became victims of a Jeff Triplette refereeing storm, which is a line starting to remind you of a TSA checkpoint. Triplette was the middle of a messy miscommunication with the chain gang in last week's Washington-New York Giants game. This week, he reversed BenJarvus Green-Ellis being down at the 1 into the Bengals' second touchdown, though most replays suggested differently. Otherwise, it was 7-0 at halftime.
"Pretty major," Mathis called it. "They got the momentum and it was hard to rebound from it."
Sure. But Jeff Triplette isn't the reason the Colts were 2-for-10 in third down conversions, or coughed up 430 yards. Besides, while you're burying Triplette, remember he won a Bronze Star in the Gulf War.
"We have a tough team so we've been able to overcome things like that in the past," Antoine Bethea said.
So the time for scoreboard watching is probably over. The Colts are now in pre-playoff operations and problem-solving mode.
"Clap for them," Mathis said of the Bengals. "Back to the drawing board for us."
They once beat the league's best, but something is now missing. Besides Reggie Wayne.
"We've got to find out what it is," Bethea said. "We win together and we lose together, but we'll find it."