INDIANAPOLIS – Pick a game, just about any game in any week of the NFL.
It comes down to making a play – really a handful of plays – to win.
Or not making them, and lose.
Good teams – even pedestrian teams such as the Washington Commanders behind backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke – find a way to make the necessary plays.
Bad teams – we give you the Indianapolis Colts, and it obviously doesn’t matter whether they’re following Matt Ryan or Sam Ehlinger – too often find a way to lose.
Commanders 17, Colts 16.
With 11 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in a Sunday game at Lucas Oil Stadium teeming with storylines – Ehlinger’s first career start, Terry McLaurin’s homecoming, Shaquille Leonard’s second return of the season, Tarik Glenn being added to the Ring of Honor, so many franchise icons on hand for it all – the Colts seemingly had seized control.
Nyheim Hines’ 6-yard sprint around the left side gave Indy a 16-7 lead.
Then – Poof! – it all slipped away, as this season continues to do.
“Honestly, I don’t know where to start,’’ Hines said. “To see us up 16-7 and to think about us losing, it was like shocking.’’
As is almost always the case, it took a collective effort for the Colts to slide to 3-4-1.
One team made the plays when it absolutely, positively had to.
The Colts didn’t.
“Tough loss,’’ Frank Reich said. “Got to find a way to eliminate critical mistakes. Offensively in the high red zone, just had too many critical mistakes.
“Defensively, I thought we hung in there, and then obviously they had those last two drives.’’
Gus Bradley’s defense kept things winnable, until it didn’t. It limited Washington to 191 yards, 10 first downs and 7 points on eight drives in the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter: 171 yards, 10 first downs, one field goal and the game-winning TD on the final two drives.
“We just didn’t get the job done,’’ said Leonard, who came up with his first interception of the season while working on a pitch count of roughly 20 plays. “We could have did more, should have did more. It just wasn’t good enough.’’
Over the final 11-plus minutes, Heinicke drove Washington 82 yards for a 28-yard Joey Slye field goal and 89 yards for his game-winning 1-yard sneak with 22 seconds remaining. The first drive was kept alive when Heinicke converted a fourth-and-6 with an 18-yard completion to Curtis Samuel, who beat Kenny Moore II’s coverage.
The killer follow-up possession was given new life with a fourth-and-1 conversion – Heinicke to Samuel again, this time for 12 – and featured Heinicke’s 33-yard completion to McLaurin that saw the Cathedral H.S. product wrestle the football away from Stephon Gilmore at the 1-yard line.
Heinicke continually bought time in the pocket with his mobility against a tiring Colts’ pass rush, and McLaurin drove a stake through the heart of the team he followed as a youngster.
“Terry wasn’t going to be denied,’’ said Washington coach Ron Rivera.
Heinicke, Samuel, McLaurin made the plays when it really mattered.
The Colts didn’t make enough in the fourth quarter, and suffered too many mistakes leading up to it.
They could have kept Heinicke and McLaurin banished to the sideline after Slye’s 28-yard field goal. Four minutes, 55 seconds remained and Ehlinger took over first-and-10 at his own 25.
But instead of draining the clock, the drive ended when Ehlinger’s third-and-5 scramble/dive came up inches short of moving the chains.
“I thought I had it,’’ Ehlinger said. “I thought I had it by the reaction of my teammates, but obviously my knee was down.’’
Reich, so aggressive so many times in the past, considered going for it. Convert with 2:47 remaining, and the win might have been secured.
“Yeah, I thought about it. I thought hard about it,’’ Reich said. “The way our defense had been playing, I didn’t want to leave them short.
“I think the charts were pretty even, so it was hard for me not to go for it there. With the way the defense was playing, I was comfortable with that decision.’’
Not only were the Colts unable to close offensively or defensively, they simply did too much wrong. They:
*were 1-for-3 in the red zone. There was Hines’ 6-yard TD, but one drive ended at the 17 when Ehlinger lost control of the football and lost a fumble as the Washington pressure was closing in. On the drive before Hines’ TD, the Colts reached third-and-goal inside the 1 – Michael Pittman Jr. was ruled short of the goal line on a 2-yard touch-pass from Ehlinger – only to have Jonathan Taylor stuffed for a loss of 1. Chase McLaughlin cleaned up with the shortest field goal possible, a 20-yarder.
*came away with just 6 points on three other drives that reached the Washington 28, 21 and 26. Twice the Colts settled for McLaughlin field goals, the other time Taylor lost a fumble at the 26 at the end of a 6-yard run. Indy now has fumbled 21 times, losing seven, and suffered 16 total giveaways.
*never got a chance at closing heroics. Facing a first-and-10 at his own 25 with 22 seconds remaining, Ehllinger hit Pittman Jr. in stride. Instead of sprinting to at least midfield, Pittman dropped the pass. Another short completion could have put McLaughlin in position for a long field goal to win it at the gun.
Ehlinger had his moments. In his first start since leading Texas into the 2020 Valero Alamo Bowl against Colorado, he completed 17-of-23 passes for 201 yards and rushed/scrambled six times for 17 yards. His 47-yard completion to rookie Alec Pierce was the Colts’ longest of the season.
But he was sacked twice – that’s 26 and counting for the Colts’ pass protection – and lost the critical fumble. He wasn’t certain what happened on the play.
“Just a blunder,’’ he said.
Ehlinger seemed to downplay his first career start. His routine didn’t change.
“I was just ready to go,’’ he said, adding the outcome was “obviously unfortunate.’’
“I thought as an offense we had a lot of opportunities. We just shot ourselves in the foot. We got down on the other side of the 50 multiple times and didn’t come away with points. Two turnovers got down to the inch-yard like and came away with three points.
“That’s not good enough in this league.’’
The team-wide performance wasn’t good enough, which has been the case too often this season.
“The stuff that we’re seeing is all self-inflicted,’’ Leonard said. “We’re way better than what we’re putting out on the field. And that’s what hurts the most.
“There’s no way our record should be what it is. We know how good we can be. It’s frustrating. It sucks.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.