ARLINGTON, Texas – Thirty seconds into the fourth quarter, the Dallas Cowboys faced a third-and-10 on the doorstep of the Colts' red zone. The Colts' were down, 21-19 – a two-point deficit that might be easy to forget after what transpired over the final 14 and a half minutes of Sunday's game at AT&T Stadium.
Because what transpired in the fourth quarter was the Cowboys scoring 33 points, the Colts turning the ball over four times and the final score – 54-19, a 35-point loss – the franchise's largest margin of defeat since Week 1 of the 2017 season, and the most points allowed by the Colts since Week 11 of the 2012 season.
"We were in the game," tight end Kylen Granson said. "The first three quarters, we were in the game, we're right there. We were slugging it out — it's a slugfest. And if you look at the scoreboard you would've never thought it was a close game."
"We've been super close, we just haven't pulled it out," center Ryan Kelly added. "That's what sucks, that's what hurts the most. To go into the fourth quarter, we're down two, to let it get out of proportion like that freaking sucks."
On that third-and-10, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott rolled to his right and found wide receiver CeeDee Lamb for a 17-yard completion, and then hit wide receiver Michael Gallup for a three-yard touchdown on the next play. That put Dallas up, 28-19.
The Colts opened their next drive with a tight end screen to Mo Alie-Cox, who lost a fumble recovered by Malik Hooker; the 2017 Colts' first-round pick scythed 38 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys went for two and failed, but their lead increased to 34-19.
After a fourth-down conversion from their own 31-yard line, the Colts looked to gain some momentum – but quarterback Matt Ryan was picked off by cornerback DaRon Bland on a throw toward Granson on third and six. Cowboys running back Tony Pollard ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run three plays later. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart blocked the ensuing PAT (his second blocked kick of the season), which put Dallas up, 40-19.
"You're not going to win many games when you're turning over as much as we did," Ryan said. "It becomes difficult."
The Colts quickly drove into Dallas territory on their next drive, with wide receiver Parris Campbell drawing a pass interference flag and tight end Jelani Woods rumbling for 22 yards to the Cowboys' 30-yard line. But that's where Ryan was intercepted by Bland again, this time after he jumped in front of a pass intended for wide receiver Ashton Dulin. Ezekiel Elliott finished off that drive with a four-yard touchdown, ballooning Dallas' lead to 47-19.
The last one came when Ryan lost a fumble on a sack; running back Malik Davis' 23-yard touchdown cemented the Cowboys' 54-19 win.
"At the end of the day, a loss is a loss. But that was just straight up embarrassing, in my opinion," Campbell said. "I've played football for a long time and I've never looked at a scoreboard and seen that much of a differential, except for in Jacksonville last year. But that was embarrassing. It was embarrassing."
Add in an interception late in the second quarter, and the Colts finished with five turnovers on Sunday – bringing their season total to an NFL-high 26; their minus-14 turnover differential is tied with the New Orleans Saints for the worst in the NFL. And it's not like there's one singular solution that'll take care of this, which is the biggest issue behind the Colts' 4-8-1 record.
"It's not one area, right. We're all playing a part of it," interim head coach Jeff Saturday said. "And that's the frustrating part because it's not something that you can just snap your fingers or change a player and all of a sudden fix it. We have a number of different position groups that have to make plays at points and we're not making them. We, collectively, gotta play better and execute better."
The Colts, too, weren't pointing any fingers at any specific player for the five turnovers – or for the preponderance of turnovers that've plagued this team in 2022.
"We're a team," Campbell said. "When the offense turns the ball over, it's on all of us. It's a collective. Whatever the case may be on a certain player, it's a collective. You can't blame one guy. We're in this together, we're gonna win together, we lose together. As much as it hurts, we're gonna lose like that together. It's a collective."
After the game, Saturday's message to his team was that it was time for a "gut check" during the bye week before returning for the final four games of the 2022 season.
"You gotta go check yourself, man," Saturday said. "What can we do to get better? Nobody's gonna feel sorry for us. The only ones in the room who can fix it are the ones in there. We got to get it fixed and be better than we are right now."
That message hit home in the Colts' locker room before heading back to Indianapolis.
"Each guy's gonna have to just look back and reflect what he's done so far this year and how he wants the rest of the season to look," Kelly said, "and the rest of his career to look."
"You can't roll over," Campbell said. "If we roll over and just let the tide go over us, this is going to be the feeling every single week. At the end of the day, we're all grown men, we're all professionals. We're in this game for a reason, we're in this sport for a reason. And we gotta continue to prove it."
And added Granson: "The only thing we can do as players is step back off this bye week, look in the mirror, look at the film, look at ourselves — really look deep and be honest with ourselves, and are we playing up to the standard. If you're not, step it up. If you are, what more can you do. But really it's a reality check for us. We have four games left. Are we going to make the most of it or are just going to lay down and die."
The Colts, this week, will have their first extended break since Labor Day weekend to focus on physical and mental rest. And part of the bye week process will be taking a hard look at where this team is, collectively, ahead of the final quarter of the 2022 season.
"There's no Band-Aid to fix this," Saturday said. "We gotta soul-search and get better. We got a four-game season and we need to see who we are."
The Colts take on the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football at AT&T Stadium.