1. The Colts made too many mistakes to overcome against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Expected Points Added (EPA) is an advanced stat geared at measuring the value of each play in terms of points. For a longer explanation, click here – the short version is, a positive EPA for an offense is good and a negative EPA for an offense is not.
Outside of the five plays on which the Colts turned the ball over, they had a higher EPA per play (.256) than the Buccaneers (.240).
The point here isn't to minimize the turnovers – those were what the Colts pointed to as why they lost, 38-31, to the Buccaneers on Sunday. The point, instead, is to show the Colts played a pretty good game when they were able to avoid those mistakes – a fumble, a strip-sack, a muffed punt, an interception on a 50/50 ball and (less so) an interception near the end zone with time expiring.
"I don't know how many times you're going to turn the ball over against a good team and still score that many points," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "But we have to be better. We have to be better there."
Teams are 2-47-1 since 2016 when committing five or more turnovers. It's hard – nearly impossible – to win making that many mistakes, no matter how well you play outside of them. Especially when you're facing Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions.
"Ultimately when you make that many mistakes against a good football team," head coach Frank Reich said, "it's going to come back to haunt you."
2. Frank Reich explained the Colts' pass-heavy approach after the game.
Between the 6:37 mark of the second quarter and 10:06 mark in the fourth quarter, Jonathan Taylor did not have a rushing attempt. In that span, Wentz dropped back to pass on 26 consecutive plays. But that doesn't quite tell the whole story.
For starters, a good chunk of that time was during a two-minute drive at the end of the first half. Nyheim Hines has been the Colts' two-minute back all season, and the Colts scored a touchdown on that drive.
And then in the third quarter, the Colts called a couple run/pass options on which Wentz read the Bucs' defense and took the "P" instead of "R" in RPO.
"Each drive we were looking at trying to mix it up where we could," Reich said. "Call a couple RPOs early then you get a couple situations where you're behind the sticks and then thirdly, like I said, Carson was hot. Felt like we were playing well there. That's just the way it's going to be sometimes."
At halftime, Taylor had eight carries for 25 yards, underscoring how effectively the NFL's No. 1 run defense was limiting the effectiveness of the Colts' ground game. Wentz, meanwhile, was 16/24 for 197 yards with three touchdowns and a passer rating of 131.4 after two quarters.
"Normally someone will say something to me," Reich said having so many dropbacks in a row. "Nothing was said to me during that stretch but sometimes something like that will be said. The reason probably no one was saying anything was because a lot of the things we were calling were working. A lot of them were working against a really good defense. So I think that's probably why."
3. The Colts have played well after close losses this year.
Week 12's loss to the Buccaneers was the Colts' fourth one-score defeat this season; all four have been to teams currently in position to make the playoffs (Rams, Ravens, Titans, Buccaneers).
There was a mitigating factor – or factors, in Wentz's ankles – after that Rams loss, but after dropping heartbreakers to the Ravens and Titans, the Colts came out strong in their next two games:
- Weeks 6 and 7: 31-3 win vs. Houston, 30-22 win at San Francisco
- Weeks 9 and 10: 45-30 win vs. New York, 23-16 win vs. Jacksonville
And of course, after beating Jacksonville, the Colts thumped the Buffalo Bills, 41-15.
But the Colts have shown an impressive ability to lock in after these gutting losses they've been handed in 2021. For a 6-6 team fighting to make the playoffs, that ability is an important foundation as the Colts got back to work on Monday.
"Guys are laser-focused," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Guys are looking at themselves and what can I do better. Nobody's pointing fingers, they're looking at their play saying, what could I have done better on this play? How can I make an impact to help my team? And that's the type of mentality and that's the type of guys we got in the locker room."
4. Isaiah Rodgers made a significant impact.
Rodgers' 72-yard kickoff return with 20 seconds to go was remarkable in giving the Colts some extremely late life – it was the second-longest kick return with fewer than 30 seconds left in a game since 1994. And the second-year Colts cornerback earlier in the game did an impressive job tracking a Brady deep ball for an interception.
The 23-year-old Rodgers earned his second-highest PFF coverage grade (72.9) of the season against the Buccaneers and allowed just a 16.7 passer rating when targeted in 18 coverage snaps. On the season, Rodgers is allowing a 65.7 passer rating when targeted and has two interceptions; he has three kickoff returns for more than 30 yards, too.
But that 72-yard return was blocked well and was one Buccaneers defender away from going for a touchdown that would've sent Week 12 into overtime. Reich and special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone told Rodgers to take the kick out of the end zone and go score, and he nearly did.
"It was an amazing return and he gave us a chance," Taylor said. "That's all we can ask for from special teams in that situation."
5. Jack Doyle had his most productive game in years.
Doyle's six catches, 81 yards and one touchdown represented his most catches in a game since 2019 and most yards in a game since 2017 (he made the Pro Bowl in both years). The 31-year-old is up to 26 catches, 278 yards and three touchdowns in 2021 and has proven himself to be an important target for Wentz, especially when the Colts' quarterback needs to pick up some tough yards on third down.
Wentz is 7/9 when targeting Doyle on third down, and six of those seven receptions have gone for first downs. Doyle's longest catch against the Buccaneers went for 22 yards on a third-and-10, which helped spark the Colts' two-minute touchdown drive just before halftime.
"We have so many guys on offense, it's a week by week thing and our coaches do such a good job of spreading the ball around," Doyle said. "You just try to be ready when the ball comes your way."