INDIANAPOLIS — Nyheim Hines punched it into the end zone from one yard out with 10:23 to go in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, giving the host Indianapolis Colts a 17-7 lead over their AFC South Division rivals.
In a crucial Week 13 divisional matchup between two 6-5 teams, it seemed at that point as if the Colts were poised to run away with this thing to stay relevant in the AFC playoff picture.
But as it turned out, the Titans still had plenty left in the tank — in all three phases.
Tennessee would outscore Indianapolis 24-0 over the final quarter and a half of Sunday's game, utilizing a well-balanced attack on offense, a couple big plays on defense and a momentum-shifting blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown on special teams to fly home with a 31-17 win over the Colts, who fall to 6-6 on the season.
"Tough loss," head coach Frank Reich said. "We had a good week of practice; I thought we were ready. It was a close game, and then just had some critical mistakes along the way in all three phases. And those mistakes aren't attributed to any one person — we all share in those. I know this locker room is together, win or lose, as a team. And today I give the Titans credit — they outplayed us."
Offensively, the Colts on Sunday through the first three quarters seemed to figure out a solution to their recent struggles to get passing plays in big chunks. Over that span, quarterback Jacoby Brissett completed 15-of-23 passes for 205 yards with one touchdown and one interception each, with six "chunk" passing plays of 16 yards or more.
But the Titans (7-5) started figuring things out with their pass rush in the second half, and they also found ways to take advantage of a couple errant Brissett throws. Case in point: with just less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Brissett overthrew wide receiver Zach Pascal, which was picked off by Logan Ryan — Brissett's second interception of the game.
With the defense doing its part, the Tennessee offense took over from there. Three plays later, on 3rd and 6, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill found wide receiver Kalif Raymond over the top in the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown, giving Tennessee its final 31-17 lead with 3:02 left in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the biggest play of the day Sunday was made on special teams, however.
Tied at 17 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, the Colts sent out Adam Vinatieri to attempt a go-ahead 46-yard field goal. But Dane Cruikshank came charging through the right side of the Indy protection and blocked the kick, which was scooped up by Tye Smith and returned 63 yards for a touchdown, giving the Titans a 24-17 lead with 5:02 left that they wouldn't relinquish.
The play was the third missed kick of the afternoon for the Colts — two of which were blocked.
"They just executed a rush very well," Reich said of the blocked kick that was returned for a touchdown. "I have to see the tape to see exactly where we broke down in the protection, so I haven't seen the tape of it, obviously, but no one should ever come that clean through the D gap."
The Colts' playoff hopes aren't completely dashed after Sunday's loss, but they'll need a lot of help the rest of the way to find a way in — either to win the division or as a wild card.
Heading into Week 13 action, if the Colts would've won four out of their final five regular season games to finish 10-6, then they'd have an 80 percent chance of making the postseason, according to PlayoffStatus.com. A win in three of the final five games, meanwhile, pushes those playoff odds down to just 28 percent.
So the charge from owner Jim Irsay to his team after Sunday's game was to figure out a way to fight and claw to a 10-6 record this season, and let the rest of the results work themselves out from there.
"Either way, whether it gets us in or not, our approach doesn't change," Reich said. "And so what we talk about is we play for each other, we believe in each other, and that's what we're continuing to do."