INDIANAPOLIS – In the bottom-line business that is the NFL, the praise and high-fives come with gusto when the quarterback’s team wins while the criticism and accusing fingers are harsh when it doesn’t.
We’re looking at Door No. 2 following an unsuccessful trip to Cleveland by the Indianapolis Colts and Philip Rivers.
A three-game winning streak went Poof! and a top-ranked defense that had no answers for Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. in the first half was culpable . . . until it regrouped at halftime and harassed Mayfield into a pair of interceptions that kept things eminently winnable.
But the quarterback. And his offense.
“We started off pretty danged good,’’ Rivers said. “Really that first half, we weren’t great but we were pretty good.
“Then the second half, it wasn’t good at all.’’
That second half included two Rivers’ interceptions – safety Ronnie Harrison returned the first one 47 yards for a touchdown – and a safety when Rivers, under pressure by Myles Garrett, was penalized for intentionally grounding while throwing from his end zone.
With little margin for error against a legitimate Browns bunch – it, too, brought a three-game winning streak into FirstEnergy Stadium – Rivers made too many mistakes. Or, if you prefer, he failed to make enough plays.
Let’s do the math.
The Browns pulled out a 32-23 victory.
Rivers was responsible for nine points with the pick-6 and safety.
Too harsh? Probably. Or maybe not.
This was the second time in five games Rivers’ mistakes proved costly and too much to overcome. In the season-opening 27-20 loss at Jacksonville, he passed for a season-high 363 yards and one TD, but suffered two more interceptions – that’s five on the season and 23 in his last 17 games – that led to 10 Jaguars’ points.
Again, do the math.
Coach Frank Reich was in no mood to pile on his QB1.
“Philip is playing really good football,’’ he said on a Zoom conference call. “That is the least of my worries. Philip obviously had the one pick-6, but Philip did a ton of good stuff, in my opinion. I obviously have to watch the film, but he made some plays and he made some throws.
“You lose a game like this and we all share in it.’’
Rivers clearly was irritated after the game, and who could blame him?
“Just not consistent enough, again, with the pick-6 and the safety,’’ he said. “Give a good team, especially that offense, nine (points) and then our D really bowed up in the second half and played well enough to win.
“Offensively, we didn’t do enough to win.’’
The glaring mistakes were Harrison’s pick-6 and the safety.
The former came on the opening drive of the third quarter and with the Colts looking to slice into a 20-10 halftime deficit. On third-and-4 from his own 47, Rivers looked to his left. T.Y. Hilton ran a shallow right-to-left cross, but Harrison undercut the route.
Rivers and Hilton seemed in deep discussion as they walked off the field, the Colts suddenly in a 27-10 hole.
“The interception for a touchdown killed us,’’ Rivers said. “Just wasn’t a good throw. That’s about the only explanation you’re going to get.’’
Reich dismissed any talk that Rivers, 38 and in his 17th season, no longer can make all of the throws he needs to make, including one outside the numbers.
“Philip can throw the ball anywhere on the field he needs to throw it,’’ he said.
Rivers’ second interception was another third-down attempt – third-and-6 – and targeted for tight end Mo Alie-Cox. He stepped up to avoid pressure, and forced the football into coverage that safety Sheldrick Redwine intercepted.
“The one, I wish I had back as well,’’ Rivers said, adding that considering the circumstances – down 29-20, 11:35 to play – “I don’t hate that one as much.’’
As for the safety, Reich took the blame. It began with return specialist Nyheim Hines making a questionable decision by fair catching Jamie Gillan’s punt at the 4. On the first play, Reich decided to be aggressive.
“That is on me,’’ he insisted. “I can’t put our team in that position.’’
With Rivers operating out the shotgun and rookie Jonathan Taylor in the backfield for protection, the Garrett found himself one-on-one with left tackle Le’Raven Clark when Taylor saw a Browns safety giving the appearance of a blitz and stepped up. Taylor was supposed to at least chip Garrett in the ‘double-edge’ protection scheme.
“If I was the running back,’’ Reich said, “I would have read the same thing. It left the tackle one-on-one.
“We had a play that we really liked and I got a little too aggressive with the call. Normally with that field position, eight of 10 times I’m probably not making that call. But I just felt like if we got it right, it would be a big chunk and get us out of that hole.’’
If given a mulligan on the play, Rivers might have stepped up to avoid Garrett’s pressure, bought time and been better at throwing the ball away.
“But when you’re in your own end zone, you aren’t as comfortable doing that,’’ he said. “Obviously a tough play all the way around.’’
And another tough day for Rivers.
The interceptions and safety were crippling mistakes, but there were other issues for the offense. Again.
The offense entered the day 28th in red-zone efficiency and nothing changed. After their first drive of the game ended with Taylor’s 4-yard TD on fourth-and-2, three subsequent red-zone trips stalled and required Rodrigo Blankenship’s 32-, 37- and 25-yard field goals.
Over the last two games, the Rivers-led offense has just two TDs on eight red-zone trips. That wasn’t necessarily an issue in the 19-11 win at Chicago. It was against the Browns.
“We just haven’t executed well enough,’’ Rivers said. “If we knew the exact answer, we would have already solved it.’’
The Colts’ third-down issues also remained front and center. They ranked 30th in the league coming in (34.6%) and converted only 4-of-11 against the Browns (36%).
Through five games, Rivers hasn’t been good enough on the NFL’s most influential down. He was 4-of-8 for 64 yards and both interceptions on third down against the Browns. For the season, he’s 26-of-44 for 333 yards with two TDs, three interceptions and a 79.1 passer rating.
This is not what the Colts envisioned when they signed Rivers to a one-year, $25 million free-agent contract in March. His five interceptions are the second-most in his career for the first five games of a season while his four TDs are a career low.
Former Colts’ backup quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky took to Twitter to point an accusing finger at Rivers.
Orlovsky noted the Colts “are a really good sound football team. Rivers has hurt them for most of the season. They’re not built style wise to have a QB be reckless with the football. Play great defense-run the ball-be efficient as a QB. He’s holding this team back.’’
Reich wasn’t reacting to Orlovsky’s comments, but again, defended Rivers.
“Philip is playing good football,’’ he said. “You are going to have mistakes when you get in situations like that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.