After the Colts clinched a playoff birth with one regular season game to go, there was a lot of speculation that the Colts might rest some of their players for at least part of the season finale against the Texans (who, by the way, won their playoff game).
The confident Colts coaches and their players shrugged off the suggestion and instead went for the kill against their division rivals. The Colts defeated the Texans, but one has to wonder if that victory came at a cost. Against the Ravens, the Colts simply could not muster the level of energy needed to take advantage of the Ravens’ gaffes.
I made an earlier suggestion that the Colts’ coaches made an error by not resting some of their players in the second half of the Texans game.
The Colts' rookie class saw some significant playing time this season and again on Sunday against the Ravens. NFL rookies often hit a wall after the 12th game of the season because they have never played more than 12 games in any football season.
Against the Ravens, five of the seven players who caught passes from Andrew Luck were fellow rookies who were also playing in their 17th game of the season.
Several plays in the Colts’ fourth-quarter attempted comeback illustrate the effects of the long NFL season.
With 6:34 left in the game, Luck scrambled for 18 yards and a first down at the Ravens’ 27. On the next play, he had Reggie Wayne open on the post route for a touchdown but under-threw the ball by a good five yards.
Three plays later, the Ravens ran a zone blitz, and Luck turned away from the dropping Ravens defenseman and tried to hit Wayne on the opposite sideline. Luck simply reacted and failed to check the coverage on the side of the field opposite the zoned blitz. Ravens cornerback Corey Graham jumped Wayne’s out route. He tipped the ball at the Ravens' 15-yard line to his wingman cornerback Cary Williams, who returned the interception to the Colts’ 44.
Luck attempted 54 passes, was sacked three times and avoided sacks four times by scrambling for 38 yards. He faced a buffet of Ravens’ blitz packages, especially in obvious passing downs. As a result of the pressure, Luck was picking himself up off the turf all day.
It is reasonable to speculate that the game took its toll on Luck, and he ran out of gas—physically and mentally—at the point of the game that he had owned all season. Even commentator Phil Simms suggested that Luck, despite his remarkable athletic gifts, should be exhausted by his first full NFL campaign.
Just before Luck’s interception, he had rookie tight end Dwayne Allen open for a first down, but Allen couldn’t keep his feet on a simple turn-out route, and the pass sailed incomplete. In the previous fourth quarter series, rookie T.Y. Hilton also slipped and missed a sure completion.
The Colts' last desperate drive ended at the Ravens’ 38-yard line when rookie running back Vick Ballard dropped a potential first down catch on fourth down. The Colts’ rookie pass-catchers dropped at least eight of Luck’s 54 passes.
The O-line was banged up and lost two linemen before the fourth quarter, while the defense, which gave up ten plays of 18 yards or more, suffered several players who lost some plays due to injuries.
No one will ever know if some rest in the last week of the season would have helped the rookies and walking wounded, but we do know that even fine-tuned human bodies need recovery in order to perform at peak efficiency.
In the fourth quarter of their final game, the Colts simply could not muster the performance level necessary to pull off yet another come-from-behind win.