CINCINNATI – Welcome to the AFC playoff race, where seemingly every week raises further questions about how this jumbled conference's postseason picture will look when the paint dries in early January.
The Colts lost, 34-14, on Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium, bringing to an end a four-game winning streak. But they weren't the only AFC South playoff contender to lose by 20+ points on Sunday: So did the Houston Texans, who were trounced, 30-6, by the New York Jets. Joe Flacco, meanwhile, quarterbacked the Browns past a hobbled Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars, putting the Browns in the driver's seat for a wild card spot at 8-5. A few nights ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second straight game to a 10-loss team.
But if there's one thing in focus for the Colts, in the middle of a blurry AFC playoff image, it's this:
"We still control everything that we need to control," linebacker and team captain Zaire Franklin said.
The 7-6 Colts have six days to correct the issues that plagued them during Sunday's 20-point loss before kicking off against the 7-6 Steelers on Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 15. Chief among those issues: Self-inflicted mistakes in all three phases.
Or, more specifically: Uncharacteristicself-inflicted mistakes.
The Colts scored fewer than 20 points on offense for just the third time this season (Weeks 1, 9), struggled to run the ball (Zack Moss averaged 2.2 yards per carry) and had a touchdown nullified due to a holding penalty on left guard Quenton Nelson.
A defense that only allowed five plays of 40 or more yards all season gave up three – gains of 45, 46 and 54 yards – on Sunday. The Bengals' screen game created two of those gashes, including running back Chase Brown's 54-yard touchdown to open the scoring in the first quarter.
Matt Gay missed his first PAT of the season and only his third in his last 127 attempts, and had a 38-yard field goal clank off the left upright, his first miss on a sub-40-yard field goal in 54 attempts.
Cornerback Ameer Speed ran into returner Isaiah McKenzie, who lost a muffed punt in the and gave the Bengals a short field for a field goal that put them up by three scores in the second half. Earlier in the game, defensive tackle Taven Bryan was flagged for a leverage penalty when he used the body of another player to aid his attempt at blocking a field goal – with the first down the Bengals gained on it turning into a touchdown a few plays later.
"It's one of those days – it was not our day," head coach Shane Steichen said. "I have full confidence in that group that's in the locker room that we'll get it cleaned up."
The message of self-inflicted mistakes leading to Sunday's loss was one Steichen emphasized to his players after the game, and then those players emphasized in the visiting locker room at Paycor Stadium.
"Today wasn't what we're about, wasn't what we want to be about," quarterback Gardner Minshew II, who completed 26 of 39 passes for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception, said. "A lot of self-inflicted wounds. We gotta figure it out, learn from it, grow. But we should still have a lot of confidence in the body of work we've put on tape this year and the work we've done together."
Minshew added the Colts' Week 14 loss was "out of character," and especially in the context of the team's four-game winning streak, he's right. The Colts consistently played clean football in those wins over the Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans, and made game-shifting plays on offense, defense and special teams to vault themselves into the AFC playoff race.
"The team that makes the least amount of mistakes, the team that executes better is typically going to win the game," Franklin said. "Even on our four-game win streak, it was us executing, it was us outlasting our opponents. I think we gotta get back to that and keep trusting ourselves, trusting our coaches and play better on the weekends."
The vibe after Sunday's loss, though, was one of frustration but not desperation in the Colts' locker room. There's a team-wide belief in the Colts' ability to make the issues that cost them against Cincinnati a one-week blip, knowing if they snowball into next weekend it could seriously imperil their chances to make the playoffs.
"I feel like it's on us as leaders to keep the team grounded and keep our understanding that, when you're playing capable teams late in the year, the games mean more, the execution means more and we got to play to the level we know we gotta play to the level that we know we're able to play at," Franklin said. "I don't think we did that today on any phase and we just gotta be better."
But the AFC playoff race, with four weeks to go, surely has more chaotic surprises in store. And the Colts believe they can rebound from Sunday's loss and rise above that chaos, proving to the rest of the NFL again they're worthy of playing in the postseason.
"We gotta take this one on the chin," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "It's a short week and go play on Saturday. Gotta learn from this one and move on."
View in-game highlights from the Colts at Bengals matchup from Paycor Stadium on December 10.