"7-2 is the target."
That's what Craig Kelley, Indianapolis Colts publicist, tweeted before the Colts' game against the then-3-6 St. Louis Rams. The Colts, 13-point favorites per Bovada, just needed to take care of business at home to stay in the hunt for the AFC's No. 2 seed, a playoff bye and home-field advantage.
They missed the target.
The Colts got steamrolled by the Rams 38-8 Sunday in a game that wasn't even that close. A complete beatdown, all of the Colts' flaws were ruthlessly exposed: poor offensive line play, an ineffective ground game, a lack of depth at wide receiver, and a defense that can't get it done up front.
Worst of all, the Colts coaches are either seeing their roster through rose-colored glasses or are too proud to adapt their failing systems to the talent they have.
Have the Colts, in one game, gone from Super Bowl contenders to also-rans? Is it time to push the panic button in Indianapolis?
A Long Time Coming
It's full disclosure time: In July, I did a set of preseason power rankings and slotted the Colts 25th.
The Colts were coming off of a magical, storybook run to 11-5, but Lady Luck had kept close by their side throughout the #Chuckstrong campaign, and I didn't like their odds to repeat. Worst-to-first fairytales are almost always followed by brutal sequels.
To stave off that regression, the Colts made their free-agent money rain in the offseason. Oddly, though, the Colts targeted many second- and third-tier free agents, dramatically overpaying for players with soft demand in the first few days of free agency.
While departed offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wasn't brilliant in 2012—he put his offense on Luck and turned him loose, for good or ill—a change in offensive coordinators after a quarterback's rookie year is never a good thing.
Not impressed with the Colts leadership, I thought they'd be lucky to win eight games in 2013. When the Colts doubled down on questionable player-acquisition logic by trading their 2014 first-round pick for disappointing second-year running back Trent Richardson, I wasn't swayed.
By the time Week 10 rolled around, though, I'd eaten a heaping helping of crow. The Colts sat at 6-2, two games clear of the Tennessee Titans, and looked to make it three with a big win against the Rams.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's bullheaded approach had cost them a win against the San Diego Chargers in Week 6, but the incredible upset of the Denver Broncos the following week seemed to erase all doubt.
Then the Colts got walloped by the Rams. Now, all the reasons to doubt the Colts are back in plain sight and impossible to ignore.
An Hour of Agony
Albert Einstein is frequently quoted as saying, "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity."
Against the Rams, Andrew Luck sat on a hot stove for 60 minutes of football; Colts fans felt every second of his agony.
On the Colts' opening drive, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn strip-sacked Luck, and fellow end Chris Long picked up the fumbled ball and returned 45 yards for a touchdown.
The next three Colts drives were three-and-outs, followed by the Rams driving for a Zac Stacy touchdown plunge to help make it 14-0 to kick off the second quarter. When the ensuing Colts drive also petered out, this happened:
First-round rookie wideout Tavon Austin finally exploded. With that breathtaking (and breathtakingly risky) 98-yard punt return for a touchdown, Austin popped the champagne for his coming-out party.
Austin had a monster day, catching just two passes but taking them both to the house, racking up 138 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Austin's blazing speed and gifted open-field running ability propped up second-string quarterback Kellen Clemens' passing numbers. Clemens went 9-of-16 on the day for 247 yards, the two touchdowns to Austin and no interceptions.
On the other side of the field, Luck was a sitting duck.
Constrained to the pocket by the Colts' conservative offense, let down by the poor Colts pass protection, and battered by the bookend Rams defensive ends, Luck had one of his worst days as a professional quarterback.
Luck finished with 29-of-47 passing for 353 meaningless yards, one garbage-time screen pass that went for a score late in the third, and three interceptions. Luck was sacked three times for minus-33 yards and lost that fumble taken to the house by Long.
Luck and the Colts clearly miss injured receiver Reggie Wayne. After T.Y. Hilton, who caught seven passes against the Rams for 130 yards, the Colts aren't getting any production from the receiver spot; free-agent signee Darrius Heyward-Bey is simply not getting it done in Wayne's absence.
Then, there's this:
Pep Hamilton, take note: Tailbacks Trent Richardson and Donald Brown, and fullbacks Dan Herron and Stanley Havili, all combined for nine carries and two yards against the Rams.
Nine carries for two yards.
Back to the Future
The Colts are not a power-running team. They are an Andrew Luck team. Chuck Pagano and Hamilton must get over whatever you want to call what they have in their approach—confidence, faith, arrogance—and accept the reality of their roster.
The Colts don't have the offensive line to control the game with a power-run attack, nor do they have the pass protection to keep Luck in the pocket while he waits for subpar receivers to get open. Their defense is not that of the 2011 Baltimore Ravens, the third-ranked scoring unit Pagano coordinated before landing the Colts' head gig.
The Colts' future lies in Luck's incredible talent and considerable skill. That includes not only picking apart defenses from the pocket, but also using his size and athleticism to escape the rush, buy time, improvise, make hay out of broken plays, and break down secondaries by picking up yards on the ground.
Luck isn't Peyton Manning, whose mantle as the Colts' franchise quarterback Luck now wears. Luck also isn't Joe Flacco, who needed a dominant running game and Pagano's intimidating defense in order to win games with the deep ball.
Luck is Luck—the most complete quarterback prospect to come out in ages. When Pagano and Hamilton realize that their success is due to Luck and not the other way around, the Colts will be right back in the thick of things.
It's not time to hit the panic button in Indianapolis. The Colts play in the miserable AFC South, where the strongest challenge to their dominance, the Tennessee Titans, just lost to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars.
Even though they missed Kelley's 7-2 target, at 6-3 the Colts still have a two-game division lead, firmly in control of their path to the postseason.
The Colts may not be headed for a No. 2 seed, however. Despite that Sunday Night Football triumph over the Broncos, they don't appear ready to stand among the AFC's best.
This isn't the beginning of the end, though. Of their remaining seven-game schedule, the Colts still get to play the Titans twice, the in-division Houston Texans once, and close out their season against the Jaguars.
It's hard to see a realistic scenario where the Colts don't finish with at least eight wins—despite my preseason misgivings—and the AFC South division crown.