Colts vs. Patriots: 5 Things We Learned from Indy's 31-24 Loss

Russell Puntenney@@RussPuntContributor IIIDecember 5, 2011

Colts vs. Patriots: 5 Things We Learned from Indy's 31-24 Loss

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    Usually the most anticipated matchup of the regular season, this year’s installment of the most storied rivalry in the modern NFL was a chapter we probably won’t be revisiting anytime soon.

    Today’s clash between the Colts and Patriots lost most of its appeal the moment we found out quarterback Peyton Manning would not be participating in it, and any remaining interest seemed to evaporate at halftime, with the score 17-3 and the Pats clearly in charge, just as you’d expect.

    Even though this meeting lacked the dramatic storylines that typically surround it, however, that’s not to say it wasn’t an important one for both clubs involved, as the Patriots entered it with only a two-game lead in the AFC East and the Colts did so still desperate for any chance to evaluate their personnel in advance of arguably the most important offseason in franchise history.

    Click on to see the fruits of those efforts, five lessons Indy should remember after their 12th straight loss of the season. 

1. Dan Orlovsky Is the Colts’ Best Backup

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    Scoring three points in three quarters against the lowest-ranked defense in the entire league is nothing to be proud of, but when you’re used to seeing your quarterback beat himself every week with missed opportunities and careless mistakes, any improvement seems significant.

    Orlovsky began this game with seven straight completions, he finished 30-for-37 with 353 yards and two touchdowns, and even though he did throw an interception as well, he still seemed very comfortable running this offense all day long in just his first start of the season.

    Orlovsky will never be more than a backup, but after the poise he showed today on the road against a motivated opponent, he should be first in line to remain an Indy backup next season (though from the looks of it, that competition will probably be pretty fierce).

2. The Rivalry Is Officially in Jeopardy

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    Thanks to scheduling rules that guarantee all division winners within the same conference play each other the following season, NFL fans have grown accustomed to seeing the Colts and Patriots throw down at least once a year and hopefully twice when the postseason plays out just right.

    Fans expect these games to be historic, nail-biting affairs between evenly matched NFL juggernauts, and they expect to be excited about them every time they take place. They want to see lots of points, lots of intrigue, and, perhaps most importantly, they want much more than respect to be on the line whenever these two meet.

    This year that definitely was not the case, and considering the struggles both franchises are currently experiencing with aging superstars and lackluster defenses, it’s starting to look like the glory days of Colts versus Pats may already be behind us.

    The rivalry first took a hit when Tony Dungy retired, and now that Peyton Manning’s health is in serious question and Indy’s collapse into rebuilding mode seems destined to arrive sooner than anyone expected, the fascination associated with this feud is now in danger of dissipating altogether.

    The two will play again next season based on the NFL’s normal schedule rotation policy, and if the recent progress in his recovery continues, it should be Peyton Manning who lines up for Indianapolis in that contest, one more shot for the veteran quarterback to battle his arch-enemies, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

    Mark your calendars, however. The way things look right now, that very well may be the last time we see those two face off.

3. Good Coaches Expose Jim Caldwell

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    Bill Belichick outcoached Jim Caldwell today (analyst Rich Gannon took particular issue with Indy’s coverage of tight end Rob Gronkowski during the broadcast), and while that notion alone isn’t very surprising, it does confirm a troubling trend for the third-year Colts head coach.

    Caldwell is now 1-2 against Belichick, and in the one victory he did notch it took four touchdowns from Peyton Manning and one incredibly risky play call from Belichick in order to make it happen. 

    Belichick is not the only elite coach who seems to have Caldwell’s number, either.

    The Saints’ Sean Payton has schooled the Indy coach twice now, once on the biggest stage in sports and once in one of the most dominant fashions the game has ever seen.

    Rex Ryan is 2-1 against Caldwell (though one of those games was practically meaningless for the Colts, it should be noted), Mike Tomlin is 1-0, Mike Smith is 1-0 and Gary Kubiak, the tenured Texans head coach who’d gone a dismal 1-5 against Indianapolis before Tony Dungy retired, has gone 2-3 since Caldwell took over and is on pace to even that record two weeks from Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

    Jim Caldwell’s shortcomings have been on display all season.

    They shine clearest when he faces good coaches, just like he did today. 

4. This Offense Can Still Click

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    It’s been tough to gauge the Colts offense all season, in part because it’s the first time we’ve seen any of them play without Peyton Manning in any meaningful manner and in part because we’ve seen them play with three different substitute quarterbacks in his absence.

    Obviously we know they’d play better if Manning were in the lineup, but based on how pathetic the offense played for most of this year, you couldn’t help but feel there were bigger issues at play than merely the absence of one key player.

    That may indeed be the case, but after today’s surprisingly productive performance (437 total yards and three touchdowns), we at least know those issues can be overcome and, thankfully for Colts fans, the team should have just the man to do so back next season.

    If Peyton returns, Colts fans now have the confidence to expect this offense to return to its traditionally stellar form as a result, and even though the struggles this unit has experienced do still need to be addressed, after today we at least know an entire offensive overhaul won’t be necessary.

    That’s a relief.

    Then again, is there really such a thing when your team is 0-12?

5. Larry Coyer Was Only Part of the Problem

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    No one could say it was a mistake for the Colts to fire defensive coordinator Larry Coyer last week, but no one can deny the move made virtually no difference in how the Indy defense performed in this first game without his services, either.

    Thirty-one points.

    One sack.

    Zero turnovers.

    The unit had a strong finish, completely shutting out the Patriots during the fourth quarter, but by that point, it didn’t really matter much as they’d already given up four touchdowns and a field goal over New England’s first six possessions of the game.

    The reason is simple: More change is needed, and fast.

    Without Peyton Manning, the weakest links in this organization have been identified, and if Jim Irsay knows what’s good for his football team, Coyer should be just the first casualty from this wretched 2011 season.

    Caldwell is ineffective.

    Chris Polian has no idea what he’s doing.

    Defensive backs coach Alan Williams and defensive line coach John Teerlinck have both failed to impress in their decade-long tenures with the team, and if you had to hold any personnel group most accountable for the 12 losses Indy has suffered this season, it would have to be one of their units.

    All of them should be replaced before next season begins, and all of them should understand why after the season the Colts have had.

    Whether that really happens remains to be seen, but after today’s loss, one aspect of the journey forward is now crystal clear. If Irsay thinks getting rid of Coyer alone is magically going to fix this mess, he’s in store for a very rude awakening next fall.