ANDERSON — The Indianapolis Colts received their official hats and T-shirts to commemorate their AFC South championship on Monday afternoon. But the team still didn’t seem to be in a full-on celebratory mood following Sunday’s 42-28 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We wanted to get it going through the front door by winning, but it didn’t happen,” quarterback Andrew Luck told the media at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “There’s still a lot to be proud about. We know we’re not playing like we want to at this point, but we also realize the season is not over, and we’ve got a lot of games left and hopefully can build on that and go into the playoffs strong.”
It’s been a roller-coaster ride in the Circle City, where the Colts (8-5) have alternated wins and losses for the past eight games. The team was considered among the favorites in the AFC as recently as late October following a 39-33 victory against the Denver Broncos.
Blowout losses to the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals lowered Indianapolis’ profile, and Sunday’s loss against the Bengals (9-4) almost ensures the team will be locked into the No. 4 seed for next month’s playoffs.
That means a likely date with the Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) in the first round. The good news for the Colts is that contest would be the first postseason game played at Lucas Oil Stadium since 2010.
“I think road or home, we’re always going to like our chances,” Luck said. “We’re always going to go in thinking we can win. To play in front of the crowd at Lucas Oil is always special. It’s fun to play at home.”
Indianapolis is 4-2 at home this year and hosts the Houston Texans (2-11) on Sunday before closing out the regular season inside the friendly confines against the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9) on Dec. 29. In between is a trip to Kansas City for a likely playoff preview.
Head coach Chuck Pagano said all of the team’s focus is on the Texans, who will be playing their first game under interim head coach Wade Phillips. Gary Kubiak was fired last Friday, one day after the team lost to Jacksonville for the second time this season.
The Colts won in Houston on Nov. 3 with a big second-half comeback, tacking the sixth loss on to the Texans’ current 11-game slide. But Indianapolis is more concerned with its own mini-slump of three losses in the past five games.
“Right now, we’ve got a lot of things to get better at,” Pagano said. “We go back to work and play good football, consistent football for 60 minutes. This is stick to the process, next game, and that’s all we’re worried about.”
Particularly troublesome is a struggling defense that has allowed an average of 40 points in the past three losses and 24.3 points per game for the season as a whole.
Cornerback Greg Toler has missed the past six games recovering from a groin injury, and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois was out Sunday with an injured foot.
While the Colts are quick to say the injuries are no excuse, there has been more difficulty putting a finger on a specific cause for the lapses.
“We got to make plays on the back end,” safety Antoine Bethea said after the Colts surrendered 275 yards and three passing touchdowns to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. “Of course, there’s going to be times when the other team makes plays. They get paid as well. They’re professionals as well. But we got to make plays. One thing we always harp on is not letting the ball over our head. You just got to stop those plays.”
Indianapolis has three weeks to work out the kinks before the single-elimination postseason tournament begins.
The Colts are the first team in the NFL to clinch a division crown, but Pagano said he won’t take his foot off the gas. There are no plans to rest starters — as long as they’re healthy — and the focus is on “catching fire” as the playoffs approach.
“(The division title is) step one to our goals,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “Now, it’s time for phase two and that’s get in the playoffs, get on a roll and win the AFC. That’s what we’re working toward, and those are our goals.”