The Indianapolis Colts believed they were prepared to give a virtuoso performance Sunday with a playoff berth hanging in the balance.
Instead, they played their worst game of the season in a 26-11 loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars that continued a confounding losing streak in northeast Florida and brought a roller-coaster season to an end.
“Never expected to be sitting here having this moment right now. Not like this,” Colts head coach Frank Reich. “We had a good week of practice, good preparation all week long, felt good energy the whole week, every day, every meeting. Felt we had three good plans, like the players were dialed in, and we just didn’t get it done today. We just didn’t get it done coaching or playing.”
The Jaguars (3-14) ended an eight-game losing streak and sent interim head coach Darrell Bevell out with his first victory in four tries. Jacksonville got even better news shortly after the final gun sounded when the Detroit Lions sealed a 37-30 victory against the Green Bay Packers, clinching the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft for the Jaguars for a second straight year.
There was no silver lining for Indianapolis (9-8), which lost must-win games in the final two weeks of the regular season and was officially eliminated from playoff contention when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens shortly after Reich finished talking to the media at TIAA Bank Stadium.
It was an unthinkable end to a season that had a little bit of everything. Injuries and inconsistency led to a chaotic 1-4 start, but the Colts bounced back to win eight of their next 10 games with a chance to clinch a playoff spot at home against the Las Vegas Raiders last week.
At that time, Indianapolis was widely viewed as a dangerous postseason opponent and darkhorse candidate for a deep postseason run.
Instead, the Colts will watch the playoffs unfold from home and forever wonder about what might have been after losing in Jacksonville for the sixth straight time.
“It just sucks,” All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said. “When you think about everything you’ve been through, the whole silly season, starting with the offseason and then just battling through the things that we battled through – personal, individual guys who have battled through injuries – and then starting 1-4, go on a run and end that way that we did, it sucks.
“As of right now, that’s all it is. It sucks. We came down here and just flat out got dominated. It sucks.”
That’s a fair assessment of the proceedings.
Indianapolis spent the week talking about the need to make dynamic plays in the passing game to complement its power running attack. It never developed.
In a must-win game against the league’s 31st-ranked scoring defense, the Colts scored just one touchdown. With 4:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. When they trailed by 23 points.
Quarterback Carson Wentz was 17-of-29 for 185 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a crucial lost fumble. He was sacked six times and finished with a quarterback rating of 74.6.
An offensive line with two Pro Bowlers in the middle surrendered 10 quarterback hits on 32 dropbacks, and star running back Jonathan Taylor was held to just 77 rushing yards on 15 carries.
“It sucks, honestly, walking off kind of in disbelief,” Wentz said. “It’s hard to fully reflect on everything right now. It all happened so fast. But just even thinking back to where we came from, dug ourselves out of the hole, we’re in control of our destiny and then the last two weeks just didn’t get it done, and it hurts right now.
“A lot of reflection to come over the next handful of days, unfortunately. But, yeah, it’s not a good feeling right now.”
Indianapolis ran just 19 plays and gained 75 yards in the first half, going into the locker room with a 13-3 deficit.
After losing 2 yards on a three-and-out at the end of the second quarter and allowing the Jaguars to increase their lead to two scores, the Colts compounded their troubles in the third quarter.
Wentz lost a fumble at his own 38-yard line on the first possession, and Jacksonville converted another field goal for a 16-3 lead. After the teams exchanged punts, Wentz telegraphed a throw that was intercepted by Jaguars linebacker Damien Wilson at Indianapolis’ 45-yard line.
Jacksonville cashed in the turnover when wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. made an outstanding catch in the back of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown from rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a 23-3 advantage.
At that point, the writing was on the wall.
Lawrence finished with arguably his best game as a pro, completing 23 of 32 attempts for 223 yards and two touchdowns with a 111.8 quarterback rating. He wasn’t intercepted and was sacked just once – on the opening drive that ended with a touchdown.
Jones was the top receiver with seven catches for 88 yards.
“It starts with me as a head coach, and we gotta figure out how we can close this season out the right way,” Reich said. “How we can coach better, how we can play better. We had the opportunity to control our own destiny, and we just didn’t get it done.”
The Colts got only a 41-yard field goal from Michael Badgley in the second quarter and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. – who also connected on the 2-point conversion – in the final period.
The rest of the game was a series of wasted opportunities on both sides of the ball as a once-promising season ended prematurely.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Leonard said. “We’re gonna sit here, we’re gonna soak this in and hopefully we just use it, use it as fuel.”