INDIANAPOLIS – Remarkably, given the circumstances, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans, Adam Vinatieri lined up for a field goal to give his team the lead.
If Colts head coach Frank Reich was hooked to a lie detector, he’d likely admit he gladly would have accepted that scenario at the start of the day.
But things came crashing down in a hurry.
Dane Cruikshank burst through the line to block the 46-yard attempt, and Tye Smith returned the loose ball 63 yards for a touchdown.
It was the most spectacular of the 24 unanswered points Tennessee scored en route to a soul-crushing 31-17 victory.
“I single-handedly messed it up,” defensive tackle Margus Hunt said of the blocked kick. “I got caught on a guy that I was not supposed to be caught up on, and they just slipped through and got to the kick.”
Indianapolis (6-6) finds itself in undesirable territory after losing must-win games in consecutive weeks against AFC South rivals.
The Colts have lost four of their last five games overall and sit one game out of the playoffs in a tight AFC wild-card race with four weeks remaining in the regular season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this a month ago, but a series of unfortunate events finally has caught up with the franchise.
Indianapolis survived the retirement of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck two weeks before the start of the regular season and navigated future Hall of Fame kicker Vinatieri’s ongoing struggles during a 5-2 start.
But injuries have seriously depleted the offensive skill positions, and the Colts are making too many mistakes for their narrowing margin of error.
On the second snap after the blocked field goal, quarterback Jacoby Brissett airmailed wide receiver Zach Pascal down the middle of the field and was intercepted by Titans cornerback Logan Ryan.
Two snaps after that, Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a gorgeous 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kalif Raymond and the Titans (7-5) clinched just their third victory in the last 17 tries against Indianapolis.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Smith said. “We just knew it was going to be a fist fight, that we had to come in here and it would be a four-quarter brawl. We just hung in there for four quarters, and it went our way.”
It took exactly two minutes of game time for Tennessee to turn the contest on its head. Smith’s touchdown came with 5:02 to play in the fourth quarter, and Raymond’s score came with 3:02 remaining.
In the intervening period, the Colts’ playoff hopes might well have been extinguished.
In many ways, the game was a microcosm of Indianapolis’ star-crossed season. The Colts got off to a promising start, seemed to recover from some rocky moments then watched it all slip away at the end.
“We had a good week of practice,” Reich said. “I thought we were ready. It was a close game, and then we just had some critical mistakes along the way in all three phases. And those mistakes aren’t attributed to any one person.
“We all share in those. We all share in those. This locker room is together. We win and lose as a team, and today you’ve gotta give the Titans credit. They outplayed us.”
Indianapolis led 17-7 after Nyheim Hines capped off an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to open the third quarter.
The Colts final six possessions then ended with an interception, back-to-back punts, the blocked field goal, another interception and a fumble.
Brissett took more shots down field and played more aggressively, finishing 25-of-40 for 319 yards with one touchdown despite playing without his top three receivers, starting running back and No. 2 tight end.
But his interceptions each came at a critical juncture, and Indianapolis again struggled to finish off drives.
Vinatieri’s kicking woes also continued. He pushed a 55-yard attempt wide right and had a 53-yarder blocked in the first half.
Tight end Ross Travis also lost a fumble on the team’s final possession at Tennessee’s 8-yard line with 1:58 remaining.
“I feel like in a lot of games, the offense just hasn’t played well,” Hines said of the current 1-4 skid. “The defense has played well in a lot of games, but offensively we feel like we’ve let the defense down.”
The Colts sacked Tannehill six times and forced a pair of fumbles, including one on the game’s opening possession.
Brissett cashed that in with a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Doyle for a 7-0 lead with 11:03 to play in the first quarter.
Tennessee answered with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to wide receiver Adam Humphries, but Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal with 6:07 left in the second quarter gave Indianapolis a 10-7 lead at the half.
The troubles began after the touchdown to start the third quarter.
The Titans responded immediately with a 13-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry – who rushed for 149 yards on 26 carries overall — to cap an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
Safety Kevin Byard then intercepted Brissett and returned the ball to the Colts’ 14-yard line to set up Ryan Succop’s tying 31-yard field goal with 4:26 remaining in the third quarter.
That was the end of the scoring until the two minutes that forever altered Indianapolis’ season.
Owner Jim Irsay came into the postgame locker room to remind his team the fight is not over. But the Colts are well aware their backs once again rest firmly against a wall.
“We’ve done it,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We put ourselves in this hole. So, yeah, we’ve got to climb out of it, and we’ve got to do it one game at a time, and it starts in practice. It starts tomorrow.”