INDIANAPOLIS – Every week in the NFL, a number of teams meet harsh fates.
Indianapolis has had a difficult start to the season with three of its four losses coming by eight, three and seven points. The most recent setback was at Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football with the Buccaneers earning a 24-17 victory. The winning score came with just more than three minutes left in the game.
In the three latest losses Indianapolis has been in a position to impact the outcome, but the club was not able to make the plays when needed.
In week two, the Colts cut a 14-9 third-quarter home deficit to Cleveland to 14-12. The game hung in the balance until the final five minutes when the Browns had a 28-yard touchdown drive to push the margin to double digits in an eventual 27-19 victory.
A week later in Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis took a 13-10 halftime lead into the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. The Colts yielded 10 points, then tied the contest with 2:09 remaining but fell at the gun, 23-20.
On Monday at Tampa Bay, the Colts, with Curtis Painter making his first career start, opened leads of 10-0 and 17-10 and were ahead much of the way before the Buccaneers made a stretch run. Tampa Bay tied the contest in the waning seconds of the third quarter, then scored with 3:15 remaining to earn the win.
The tightness of the final margins brings no solace since the organizational barometer is winning games. Head Coach Jim Caldwell sees the fight in his club and is firm in the knowledge that effort never is a problem with his players.
"One of the things you look at and try to measure, particularly when things aren't going well, is what kind of effort you are getting," said Caldwell. "That's one of the things we don't worry about because our guys give great effort. They give great effort in practice, and you see it in ballgames. They fight you tooth and nail, every step of the way, and I'm proud of that. They get after you.
"What we have to do is get ourselves in a little bit better position to execute properly. We had a few too many mistakes, so we have to eliminate those. When you play in as many tight games as we've had here lately, you have to really be on top of your game in every phase because our margins for error are pretty thin. We can't afford mistakes…We just have to find a way to play a little bit better. (We) talk about our margins, which are so thin in terms of, 'We're about that far away,' and it's just one play. One play here, one play there. You analyze everything when games are so close. But, all in all, I think we just can't afford mistakes."
For the season, Indianapolis is plus-one in turnover margin. It yielded 14 points off two touchdown drives set up by fumbles at Houston, and the scoring drives combined covered 30 yards. Cleveland converted two Colts fumbles into field goals, then had a 28-yard touchdown drive that followed a long punt return. Pittsburgh had a fumble return for a touchdown. At Tampa Bay, a potential end zone interception with a 10-point lead did not happen and Indianapolis surrendered a touchdowns a couple of plays later. Key plays like that have had an impact over the first four games.
A problem early on has been the ability to stop opponents on third downs. Tampa Bay converted seven-of-17 opportunities, marking the first time in three weeks an opponent failed to convert 50 percent. Indianapolis has given up conversions on 28-of-59 third downs in 2011.
Still, the Colts are fighting and firming up execution in small areas will influence the scoreboard.
Painter started at Tampa Bay in place of an injured Kerry Collins. He directed Indianapolis to 10 first-half points, the highest halftime total in a game this season. Painter was making his first career start and was playing in just his fourth career game, and he hit 13-of-30 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns. He teamed with wide receiver Pierre Garcon on 87- and 59-yard scoring passes, becoming the fifth Colts quarterback to have to 50 -yard scoring passes in the same game, and the first since Peyton Manning in 2004. Painter was the first quarterback since Cincinnati's Jeff Blake (1994) to have two from the 50 distance in a first career start, and his 87-yarder was the third-longest first career touchdown pass by an NFL quarterback (98, Charlie Batch; 89, Neil O'Donnell).
Caldwell liked the play of Painter at Tampa Bay. He thought the third-year pro acquitted himself well but with five days until the next game, Caldwell did not wish to address the starting situation at this point.
"I think Curtis did some good things," said Caldwell. "Curtis was able to do exactly what we asked him to do. He got us into some good plays in terms of the checks he made. He had some big plays throwing the ball down the field. I think overall he did a pretty good job under the circumstances…We're not going to make that decision today (on who starts this Sunday). Curtis did the things we asked him to do. He had some bright spots, but we will see how things go here in the next day or so."
Defensive end Robert Mathis had his 77th career sack at Tampa Bay and he is one of many players who symbolize the fight in the team. Despite a difficult first quarter of the season, he is as firm in his belief in his teammates as he is in lining up before the snap of a ball.
"We are a very confident team," said Mathis. "We've got to keep fighting, keep chopping wood, and, you know the old Tony Dungy habit, you just got to keep stronger and keep chopping wood. That's what we are going to keep doing. We are a solid team, we have a good foundation. It will all come together. The leaders, we will make sure it comes together, (because) you know followers just keep following the leaders. So let's keep things in perspective."
Indianapolis was beset with injuries against the Buccaneers. In addition to the team placing linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt on injured reserve during the week before the game, defensive tackle Fili Moala was inactive along with Collins. Right guard Ryan Diem also missed a second consecutive game. First-round draft pick Anthony Castonzo started his fourth game, but left early with an ankle injury. Second-round pick Ben Ijalana subbed for Castonzo for his first extended duty, but he left the contest, too. Jeff Linkenbach shifted from right tackle to left tackle to finish the game, and the only seasoned veteran on the line was center Jeff Saturday. The defensive line was thinned during the game with injuries to Eric Foster and Drake Nevis, and Tampa Bay was able to control the ball for 39 minutes of the game, including for 32:31 of the final 45 minutes. Despite the ailments, Caldwell's team battled away.
"I think you have to deal with injuries in this business. It happens," said Caldwell. "You just have to find a way to overcome it, and that's when we talk about, 'Next Man Up.' Somebody's got to step up and fill in and we have to be ready to play come Sunday. Our team goals have never changed and still haven't. Obviously the first quarter (of the season) is over with and we'll start the second quarter and see where we are. We have a lot of football ahead of us yet."