This was always going to be a tough game for the Indianapolis Colts. On the road against a very good defense, the Colts couldn't afford to get into an early hole.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what they did.
It was a comedy of errors for Indianapolis, with every player contributing to the loss, save Sergio Brown, who was as good on special teams as he's been all year.
But one strong special teams player doesn't offset the entire rest of the roster. The Colts are as inconsistent as they come, and this was arguably their worst game (although, the St. Louis game did occur at home).
What can we take away from this one? Well, it won't be fun, but here are the eight things I took from the Colts' embarrassment in the desert.
It's been said before, but it continues to be self-evident: Andrew Luck's play determines the Colts' fate.
Against Houston and Tennessee, Luck played phenomenally in the second half, setting up the Colts' comeback. Against St. Louis and Arizona, Luck never got into a rhythm, getting pushed off his spot by the pressure early and often. Against Houston and Tennessee, Luck didn't play well in the first halves, but it never really seemed out of reach.
Luck didn't get help from his supporting cast, whether it was the offensive line, the receivers or the defense. However, that doesn't give Luck an excuse to play as poorly as he did at times, missing open receivers and making poor decisions (like throwing a pass while being tackled that was picked off and returned for a touchdown).
Luck finished just 20-of-39 for 163 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. With 4.18 yards per attempt, Luck had his career-worst game. Again, Luck is in a terrible situation right now, and you have to sympathize with him, but that doesn't excuse a poor performance.
Last week, the Colts offensive line had a bounce-back game, helping the team run for 137 yards and held Tennessee to just one sack. This week, they were back to the offensive line that we've gotten used to seeing over the last 12 weeks.
Sure, they only allowed one sack, but Luck (like the St. Louis and Houston games) was pressured throughout, and it was only his mobility that kept that number low.
On the rushing side of things, the line was as bad as ever, as the Colts' starting backs ran for just 16 yards on nine carries. Of course, you have to wonder why the Colts abandoned the run so early, especially when it comes to Donald Brown, who earned just two carries a week after running for 80 yards on 14 carries.
Obviously the early deficit was a big part of the Colts' play-calling, but the lack of chances that Brown got is baffling.
This past offseason, one of the Colts' biggest issues was the lack of a No. 2 receiver and the lack of a potential replacement for Reggie Wayne. Right now, the lack of a solution is keeping the Colts from having any success offensively.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has been one of the most under-discussed free-agent flops, as his complete lack of production in the Colts offense has left an enormous void. With Reggie Wayne out, however, there's nobody to pick up the slack. Behind T.Y. Hilton, the rest of the targets on the Colts' roster are practice squad-level targets.
At the same time, the coaches continue to do the same thing, expecting different results. Heyward-Bey, David Reed and Griff Whalen did absolutely nothing. Whalen's already been cut, but Heyward-Bey and Reed continue to get chances. Meanwhile Da'Rick Rogers is sitting on the bench and was inactive for the last two weeks. The Colts need to try something. Reed and Heyward-Bey aren't doing anything.
Either change what they're doing, or change the pieces.
Ah, yes, there was one positive to take away from the game.
Robert Mathis got back on the sack list with an eight-yard sack of quarterback Carson Palmer. With the sack, Mathis brought his total up to 14.5 on the season and 106 for his career.
Mathis now with 14.5 sacks in 2013, 1.5 short of Dwight Freeney's single season record. Also, 1.5 short of Freeney's franchise mark (107.5)— Kevin Bowen (@KBowenColts) November 24, 2013
It was also Mathis' 40th sack/forced fumble, setting a new NFL record.
One of the biggest disappointments this season has been the declining play of Antoine Bethea, who has been playing as poorly as ever during these last few weeks.
Last season, Bethea had a down year, but it was largely excused due to the lack of talent around him. Tom Zbikowski and Cassius Vaughn gave him a lot of ground to cover.
Bethea doesn't have that excuse this season, as the overall talent in the secondary is better than it has been since 2007.
His instincts are a little off, but he's slower, takes poor angles and still has poor ball skills. Bethea is the second-best safety the Colts have had in the last 15 years, but his play has declined dramatically. With play like he's had over the last few weeks, it's hard to envision him getting re-signed after the season.
This could be the last Indianapolis sees of Antoine Bethea.
The Colts defense has had plenty of struggles, but they've been able to put it together in stretches long enough for the Colts to win seven games this season.
Against Arizona, nothing went right.
Indianapolis' defense can be successful when they can force a team to do one thing. Generally, this works best when they force a team to pass the ball by stopping the run. That's how they had such successful second halves against Seattle, San Francisco and Tennessee.
The Cardinals, however, were able to do whatever they wanted.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall ran for 54 yards on 4.2 yards per carry. Andre Ellington ran for 50 yards on 5.0 yards per carry. Palmer had a quarterback rating of 114.0. Arizona could do whatever they wanted, and they did.
Jim Irsay didn't want to build another offense-heavy team reliant on a quarterback. He wanted a balanced team, a team that was strong on every level.
Well, the problem with that strategy is that it opens you up for a crash and burn. When you try to spread money and resources around, you have to do it perfectly, or else you end up with two mediocre units instead of one elite one.
Unfortunately, that's what's happened in Indianapolis.
The Colts have a bad defense and an inconsistent offense (at best). Had the Colts put more resources into the offense (or better resources, Heyward-Bey is not the answer, and the offensive line got a poor attempt at a rebuild), they could have still had a decent offense, even with injuries. Luck is that good.
But with the complete lack of help, Luck is flailing, and the offense isn't doing anything. Combine that with a bad (but healthy) defense and you get games like this.
Luck is good enough to carry the team to occasional wins, but the team is never going to reach its potential like this.
So, with the litany of injuries holding the Colts back, which are holding the Colts back most?
Well, offensively, there is legitimate excuse. Dwayne Allen was going to be a huge part of the offense before he went down with an injury, and Donald Thomas' injury makes the Colts' offensive line seem even worse than it would have been.
But, when it comes to the offensive line, the Colts had to do more. Leaving Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn as starters was never a good idea, and the injury to Thomas didn't affect that.
Similarly, the Reggie Wayne injury is awful for the Colts offense, but the Colts needed to start a plan on that end a long time ago. Wayne was never going to be a long-term option, and the Colts knew that. Their only attempt at finding a potential replacement was a $2.5 million contract to Heyward-Bey, which, obviously, hasn't worked out.
So, while the Colts' injury luck has been awful this year, the team's handling of said injuries has been abysmal, and it's a big reason why things look so dismal now.