The easiest and obvious explanation for the Indianapolis Colts’ 30-24 overtime road loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday is to blame the kicker.
Not just any kicker, but arguably the greatest clutch specialist in NFL history. Adam Vinatieri had never missed two field goals and an extra point in one game in his 23-year career. But this day, he suffered that ignominious fate at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Simple math, if he makes those kicks, the Colts would have won their season opener.
But that’s over-simplifying this outcome.
Retired Colts head coach Tony Dungy used to say that a close football game typically comes down to five or six plays that make a difference. In the case of these Colts, there were more than that.
In addition to Vinatieri’s inexplicable inaccuracy, the defense should have gotten off the field on all three Chargers touchdown possessions in regulation.
“There were times where, in all three phases, that we just weren’t as sharp as we need to be,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “Then, we gave them second chances. That’s what’s hard. You can’t give a good team second chances, in all three phases. Every time, they made us pay.”
As he also reminded, these Chargers were 12-4 last year. They’re not pushovers.
The first “second chance” came late in the first quarter. The Chargers had to settle for a field goal, but Colts defensive tackle Denico Autry plowed into the snapper on the kick. Unnecessary roughness, first down, Chargers touchdown two plays and 2 yards later.
The Chargers were ahead 7-6 in the second quarter but looking at a third-and-13 play after Colts defensive end Justin Houston sacked Philip Rivers on second down. Rivers throws what amounted to a jump-ball pass. It was a fluttering prayer, for crying out loud. But Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen is looking at the football the whole way and positions himself perfectly. Colts rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin isn’t looking back and safety Malik Hooker is too late to prevent a 28-yard touchdown that shouldn’t have been.
Down 17-9 in the third quarter, Colts second-year defensive end Kemoko Turay races past Chargers left tackle Trent Scott to drill Rivers and force a fumble that the Colts recover. But Houston is called for offside to negate the play.
Two plays later, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler takes a short screen pass, breaks two tackles including a strip attempt by Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and goes 55 yards for a touchdown. Ekeler had also scored the game’s opening touchdown on a 1-yard catch when safety Clayton Geathers cheated too much inside in looking at the backfield.
But wait, there’s more.
Lest anyone forget that the Colts had a partially blocked 20-yard punt in the third quarter, when rookie Khari Willis failed to sustain his block long enough on the outside. That led to a Chargers field goal.
And then there was Colts tight end Eric Ebron, who should have caught a perfectly thrown pass over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown at the outset of the fourth quarter. The Colts were down 24-16 at the time. But Ebron juggled the ball when he hit the ground, and once secured, his body was on the end line.
Reich challenged, it sure was close enough to try, but fact is Ebron didn’t secure the ball in time. Instead of being within one point, or perhaps Reich goes for it there and they’re either tied or two points down, the Colts still faced that eight-point deficit with the game on the line at the end of regulation.
Fans don’t want to hear about positives being accentuated after a loss, especially in a game that could have, check that, should have been won.
But there was actually plenty to be encouraged about.
Remember how many of us in the media focused on quarterback Jacoby Brissett, wondering how he would handle stepping in for the retired Andrew Luck? Brissett was solid, completing 21 of 27 passes for 190 yards with two touchdown passes.
The Colts needed to drive 80 yards for a potential tying score with 8:30 remaining in regulation, and they did that. Brissett did what he needed to do, but a bulk of the Colts’ comeback was because of running back Marlon Mack, who rushed for a career-high 174 yards on 25 carries, including a 63-yard TD run.
Mack was outstanding behind an offensive line that dominated in the second half. Brissett threw his second TD pass of the day to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to cut the deficit to 24-22 with 38 seconds remaining. Hilton delivered an exceptional effort, avoiding two tacklers and going 19 yards, the last a lunge of the ball to tap the inside of the goal line pylon. Then Mack, behind that O-line, bulled his way into the end zone for the tying 2-point conversion.
The Colts offense definitely deserved a better result. But by game’s end, both team’s defenses were gassed. I suspect that if the Colts would have won that overtime toss of the coin, they would have drove to a winning touchdown. Instead, the Chargers got the ball and drove 75 yards in just 4:59 with Ekeler, again, scoring the deciding touchdown on a 7-yard run.
So, yes, Vinatieri had a bad day. And he’s a true pro. He owned it.
“I feel lousy because the guys played their guts off against a really good Chargers team and they played well enough to win,” Vinatieri said, “and I didn’t help them out.”
I'm reminded of when Vinatieri missed a couple of kicks in a game seven years ago and inquired about what was being said on social media. He knew the critics would be saying he was too old and needed to retire. I suspect he wanted to hear that harsh reaction to use that negativity as motivation. He suggested that those same people would be cheering him if he went out the next week and kicked three field goals including a game-winner.
And that's exactly what he did the next week. Even the best can have an off day.
The other reality is a Colts defense that had four sacks (which should have been five) as well as a spectacular Hooker one-handed interception in the end zone also faltered at key times. The unit that kept the Chargers scoreless from midway through the third quarter to the end of regulation had too many costly letdowns at other moments when it seemed to be in position to get a stop.
That’s how you lose when you should win. Make enough mistakes and they add up.
The lingering question is how will the Colts respond to this adversity? They have a difficult road game at AFC South Division rival Tennessee next Sunday. The Titans were quite impressive in a 43-13 road rout of Cleveland.
When the Colts started 1-5 last year, it was largely because they failed to finish with games on the line. They got it together and won nine of 10.
We could be looking at the same uphill challenge, or mountain climb as Reich likes to refer to it, if the Colts don’t fix enough of went wrong in Week 2.
And while some will ignore the positives, they’re as obvious as the negatives. One unfortunate late addition to that list of negatives was wide receiver Devin Funchess breaking his left clavicle while trying to catch a touchdown pass in the final minute. He’ll have surgery this week.
Fans and media who wrote the Colts off after Luck retired probably haven’t changed their opinion. But for now, I’m still keeping an open mind because I saw enough positives to think these Colts can bounce back as they have before.
“I had a bad day, (Vinatieri) had a bad day,” Leonard said, “but we know that we’re going to go back to the table every day of practice and we’re going to work and work (so this) won’t happen again.”
Just like Vinatieri, don’t be too surprised if the Colts prove once again to be a rather resilient bunch.