By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far this young Indianapolis Colts team has come and how far it still has to go.
The New England Patriots provided a harsh reminder Sunday during a dominant 59-24 victory in Foxborough, Mass.
The Colts (6-4) remain in the thick of the AFC playoff chase, but it’s clear this roster still isn’t ready to compete with the league’s elite.
And much of the damage against New England (7-3) was self-inflicted.
Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck had two interceptions returned for touchdowns, and Indianapolis allowed its first punt return for a score this season in the second quarter. Add in a Luck fumble that led to a Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski touchdown pass on the next play, and there’s 28 nearly free points in a game the Patriots won by 35.
“Between punt returns and poor tackling on returns and then the turnovers, we shot ourselves and gave them 21 points,” Indianapolis interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told the team’s website, citing only the touchdowns directly scored against the offense or special teams. “You can’t give them 21 points and expect to win.”
The errors stood out all the more in contrast to the Colts’ hot start.
Indianapolis scored on each of its first two drives, stopped the Patriots in the red zone on their second possession and watched as New England’s Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to preserve a 14-7 lead.
Then everything changed.
After the Patriots’ defense held, punter Pat McAfee launched a beautiful punt deep into the night sky. But Indianapolis was called for a false start, and McAfee was forced to kick again.
His second try came out as a low line drive, giving his punt coverage team too little time to get down the field. Julian Edelman slalomed through the Indianapolis defense and scored on a 68-yard return.
Moments later, Luck attempted to adjust his arm angle for a hit from Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork that never came and overthrow a pass that was intercepted by New England’s Aqib Talib. Making his first appearance for New England after a trade from Tampa Bay and four-game suspension, Talib took the pass back 59 yards to the end zone for a lead the Patriots never relinquished.
The teams traded field goals before the half, and New England scored easily on its opening drive of the third quarter to open up a 31-17 lead.
Luck fumbled on the next possession, leading to a 24-yard touchdown reception by Gronkowski, and rookie Alfonzo Dennard returned an interception 87 yards to start the fourth quarter and put the game completely out of reach.
“Once it got out of hand because of the turnovers, and not just the turnovers but the touchdowns off the turnovers, we just had to keep fighting and got ourselves in a one-dimensional game,” Arians said.
Luck finished 27-of-50 for 334 yards with a pair of touchdown passes to T.Y. Hilton and three interceptions. The 300-yard game was the fifth of his rookie season, surpassing Peyton Manning’s record by one.
But that’s small consolation for a team that had all of its weaknesses exposed in front of a national television audience.
The Colts still lead the Cincinnati Bengals by one game for the final wild-card spot, and they host Buffalo (4-6) next week in a game with major postseason implications.
Arians said Indianapolis will study the tape of Sunday’s loss and diagnose the source of its problems. Then the Colts will set a goal of improving and returning to New England for a January playoff game.
“We’re 6-4,” Arians said, “and we’re still in control of our own destiny.”