INDIANAPOLIS – The final taste will be thinking about all those chances to pull off the upset.
In the end though, the Colts’ own mistakes proved too costly to survive one and done football, and beat the Bills.
What was learned from the Colts season ending in a, 27-24, Wild Card round loss in Buffalo?
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. So Many Missed Opportunities: What stings the most from this playoff exit for the Colts wasn’t that the Bills looked like a 2 seed in a totally different stratosphere than the No. 7 seed Colts. Nope, the Colts certainly played pretty darn even with the Bills, yet had so many self-inflicted mistakes that it is hard to even remember them all. You had at least 5 drops. You had one of the worst offsides penalties you’ll ever see. You had more red zone issues (2-of-5), highlighted by a terrible play call. You had a missed field goal by your undrafted rookie from 33 yards out. You had awful timeout management early in the 2nd half with Frank Reich rushing a challenge flag that didn’t need to be thrown, and certainly not that quickly. And yet, the Colts had a drive at the end of the game to force overtime. But, without a timeout, and a lack of urgency clearly there with the Colts in a position they hadn’t been in all year, the Hail Mary prayer went begging. You can point to a variety of ways the Colts outplayed the Bills. They achieved much of their blueprint by dominating time of possession (34:17 to 25:13), field position (15-yard advantage on average drive start) and riding their run game (the Colts ran for 163 yards on 30 carries), with Frank Reich and Matt Eberflus having plenty of strong moments. Again, virtually everyone had the Bills winning this game. However, when you get into the playoffs you just never know when those opportunities are going to be there again. Specifically, that’s what hurts about Saturday for the Colts. It was the Colts moving the ball as well and consistent as they had all year, reaching Bills territory on all 9 of their real drives, yet coming away with only 24 points. That’s why it stings even more.
2. End Of Half Disaster: We can nitpick so many things from Saturday’s near upset by the Colts. But let’s focus on the end of the first half when the game changed to a point where the Colts were playing catch up the rest of the way. With 3:15 to go in Saturday’s first half, the Colts had a 1st-and-Goal at the Buffalo 4-yard line, leading 10-7. The opportunity was there to put the Bills down two scores for the first time in over two months. After two short gains by Trey Burton (shovel pass) and Nyheim Hines (wildcat), the Colts had a 3rd-and-Goal at the 1-yard line, at the two-minute warning. Following the TV timeout, the Colts decided to run a perimeter pitch to Jonathan Taylor, needing seldom used wideout Ashton Dulin (215 pounds) to block Bills defensive end Mario Addison (260 pounds). The play got blown up, pushing the Colts back to the 4-yard line. They went for it on 4th-and-Goal (that decision was fine in a potential shootout and Frank Reich called it a ‘strong go’ situation analytically) and Philip Rivers couldn’t connect with a diving Michael Pittman. The problem comes on the 3rd-and-Goal play call where they went away from a Jonathan Taylor run up the middle, behind All-Pros Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly, and instead exposed Taylor into space, in not favorable blocking situations. Reich admitted he wrestled with the idea of using goal line personnel and running it up the middle, but ended up choosing the perimeter play. That empty possession was made even worse by what ensued after. The Bills then drove down the field with some incredible playmaking from Josh Allen and Gabriel Davis, before stalling out at the Indy 26-yard line, facing a 4th-and-3. With Colts players saying afterwards that they knew the Bills were going to try and just draw them offsides, and not actually run a play, Kemoko Turay inexplicably went offsides on the final second of the play clock—an utterly boneheaded move. Two plays later, the Bills were in the end zone. That two-minute sequence was massive in deciding this game. Instead of the Colts leading 17-7 or 17-10 at half, they were now down 14-10, with the Bills getting the ball to start the third quarter. When you are playing the league’s elite, and not the easiest schedule in the NFL, committing mistakes like this will come back to burn you.
3. Rivers Returning? Let’s start here: Philip Rivers played pretty well on Saturday. Especially when you acknowledge the ceiling he has as a quarterback at the age of 39 and a pass catching group that could not come down with 7-8 catchable balls. Outright, the Colts had at least 5 drops against Buffalo. Rivers finished Saturday 27-of-46 (58.7 percent) for 309 yards, 2 touchdown and 0 interceptions for a passer rating of 93.5. Rivers led an offense that actually put up a season-high 472 total yards of offense. But the one thing that has plagued them a lot this season is drives stalling out in the red zone and settling for too many field goals. That was the case again on Saturday. After the game, Frank Reich said he wanted Rivers back for 2021, while also pointing out that it’s not that easy of a decision. Rivers, who is a free agent, said he needed time to think whether to retire and coach high school football or return to the Colts. Rivers has been a definite upgrade for Indianapolis this season, but Saturday was again a reminder that the Colts have a QB with a high floor and low ceiling. Look at some of the plays Josh Allen made on Saturday. That’s the goal in finding a higher reward under center. If the Colts run it back with Rivers in ’21, they have to know that everything around him has to be darn good for that January run to be possible.
4. Defense Hung In There: If you were to tell Frank Reich before the game, the Bills would score 27 points and you would force three-and-outs on 3 of the first 4 drives of the game, he would have signed up for that. This high-powered Bills attack, of course, made some remarkable plays, but they didn’t run away from the Colts. It wasn’t anywhere close to a perfect defensive outing from Matt Eberflus’ unit, but based off how that group had been playing, this performance was probably better than expected. It took some time for the pass rush to get going, and that remains an issue heading into the offseason. Improving cornerback depth is needed, too. On Saturday though, the defense held the best third-down offense in the NFL to 2-of-9 (did allow both red-zone chances to end in touchdowns). Darius Leonard’s 12 tackles were 7 more than anyone else on the defense and he played like an All-Pro for much of the afternoon. The one thing missing from this defense was the timely playmaking that had shown up so many times this season. When it hasn’t been there though, this defense isn’t going to be as stout as we saw in September and October. The close to this season showed Indy’s defense is better than average, but not at the elite level like many pegged them early in the season.
5. Offseason Is Here: Putting Saturday aside for a second, in my opinion, this was a team that didn’t have the makings of a realistic January run. It takes another jump to be at that next level, and the Colts must find that. The foundation is unquestionably largely in place. That’s a credit to Chris Ballard and company. But some key decisions are needed. Are you running it back with Philip Rivers? Does T.Y. Hilton have a third contract here in Indy? Are you willing to give Xavier Rhodes a much different contract than you did last March? Is it time to push the chips in the middle and make that aggressive move for a long-term quarterback? Is Anthony Castonzo going to ponder retirement again? The Colts have about a dozen starters that are free agents. Long-term answers at quarterback, wide receiver, left tackle, edge rusher and cornerback remain unanswered. Again, fans should be encouraged by a lot of what is intact on this roster/staff, but some big-time decisions are needed for this franchise to get back to winning divisions (haven’t since 2014), winning multiple playoff games (just 1 since 2014) and achieving that difficult goal of sustained success.
–Injury Report: The Colts had the following players inactive on Saturday: OT-Will Holden (ankle), CB-Rock Ya-Sin (concussion), QB-Jacob Eason, WR-Dezmon Patmon, TE-Noah Togiai, DE-Ben Bangou.
–Key Stat: Per Elias, the Colts became the first team in playoff history to lose despite having at least 450 total yards of offense and zero turnovers. Previously, such teams were 11-0 in the playoffs.
–What’s Next: With today’s loss (and of now), the Colts will draft 22nd overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.