The Herald Bulletin
---- — The Indianapolis Colts are a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an early two-score deficit.
The agonizingly slow starts that have haunted the team all month peaked again Sunday with a 27-3 halftime deficit leading to an embarrassing 40-11 loss at Arizona.
Indianapolis has been outscored 93-12 in the first half of its last four games — dating back to Nov. 3 at Houston — and it's lost two of its last three games by a combined 59 points. The two wins in that stretch required comebacks of 18 points against the Texans and 14 against Tennessee, who will face the Colts in a rematch this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium.
So fans can be forgiven if the team's 7-4 record feels closer to 5-6, and if a two-game lead over the Titans in the AFC South currently is of little comfort.
Injuries have hampered the team since a 5-2 start was capped Oct. 20 with a 39-33 victory against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. But it's hard to fathom a fall this dramatic.
And there appear to be no easy answers.
"You can't go to Wal-Mart and buy a pill for this," inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman told the media Monday. "You got to go out there and work and just work towards our goals, and we should be okay."
Defense is a good place to start looking for a cure.
The Colts allowed scores on four of Arizona's six first-half drives Sunday, and a fifth ended with a blocked field goal. That's no way to support an offense that was missing six significant contributors — including four starters.
But the offense can't escape blame, going 0-for-5 on third down in the first half and adding to the woes with an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
"The things that we knew we had to do, we just didn't execute well and get them taken care of," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "We'll go back to work. We got to put it behind us."
Indianapolis was running the ball well when it was winning games early in the season. Pagano often points to that dropoff as a major area for improvement. But the lack of success in the running game — the Colts gained just 80 yards on the ground Sunday — is more likely a symptom of the team's overall troubles than a cause.
Early deficits have caused Indianapolis to go to the air on nearly every snap. That further exposes a struggling offensive line and puts added pressure on a slumping receiving corps. That, in turn, leads to shorter possessions and more punts and rushes the embattled defense back onto the field.
Nothing happens in the NFL in a vacuum. Everything is connected.
And the Colts are ensnared in a vicious circle.
"The margin for error is small right now," Pagano said.
If things don't improve quickly, the team's playoff outlook will match.