PITTSBURGH — The Indianapolis Colts looked like a team on a mission heading into halftime of Sunday's Week 16 road matchup against the AFC North Division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
Offensively, the Colts outmuscled one of the more physical defensive units in the NFL to the tune of 217 yards, 13 first downs and 21 points — this despite the fact Indy was missing its starting left and right tackles. Defensively, the Colts absolutely manhandled the Steelers over the first two quarters, as Pittsburgh was limited to 93 yards, including just four on the ground. Pittsburgh's only seven points of the half came thanks in large part to a lost fumble by quarterback Philip Rivers that was picked up at the Indy 3-yard line.
Through two quarters, the Colts did everything they needed to do to keep charging ahead towards their second postseason berth in three years.
Then came the second half.
All of a sudden, the yards weren't so easy to come by for the Colts' offense. Pittsburgh's offense, meanwhile, caught on fire. A 24-7 Indianapolis lead early in the third quarter was cut to 24-14. Then 24-21. And, finally, with 7:43 left in the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 25-yard touchdown pass, giving the Steelers a four-point lead, their first of the ballgame.
A final Indy drive reached the Pittsburgh 33-yard line, but would go no further. The Colts flew home with a deflating 28-24 loss that drops their record to 10-5 and officially puts them out of the AFC playoff picture heading into the final week of the regular season.
"Difficult loss — tough loss on the road," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "Tough to swallow. When you come out in the first half and you play the way we did, good in all three phases except for the turnover — played a dominant half of football in the first half, and went out to a nice lead … and then in the second half we just didn't have any answers."
The beginning of Sunday's game couldn't have gone any better for the Colts, who were hoping to set the tone against one of the best teams in the AFC. Indy forced a three-and-out on Pittsburgh's opening drive, and then the Colts' offense charged 70 yards in nine plays on its opening sequence, finding the end zone with a six-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor.
Pittsburgh started the second quarter with a big play, as T.J. Watt knocked the ball out of the the grip of Rivers, which was recovered by cornerback Mike Hilton at the Indy 3-yard line; three plays later, running back James Conner ran it into the end zone from one yard out to tie the game at 7.
But then the Colts started to take over the ballgame — for the next quarter and a half, at least.
Indianapolis went 85 yards in 12 plays on its next drive, with Taylor finding the end zone from one yard out for his second rushing score of the game to put the Colts up 14-7. After a three-and-out by the Steelers on the ensuing drive, Rivers would launch a 42-yard touchdown pass deep down the middle of the field to wide receiver Zach Pascal, giving the Colts a commanding 21-7 lead heading into halftime.
That lead was extended to 24-7 thanks to a Rodrigo Blankenship 28-yard field goal on the Colts' opening drive of the second half, and then the Indy defense stuffed Pittsburgh's offense on a 4th-and-Goal attempt from the Colts' 2-yard line.
"If you could've been in the stadium, there was a feel of complete domination in the first half — all three phases," Rivers said. "Just like, 'Y'all don't have an answer, and we're not going to give you an answer.'"
But that's when the Steelers, Rivers said, were given a "glimmer of hope." And they took full advantage.
Backed up in the shadow of their own goal post, the Colts were forced to punt, setting up the Steelers in Indy territory. On the very first play of the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger launched it deep to wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who laid out in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown reception, cutting the Colts' lead to 24-14.
The next drive for the Colts: a three-and-out. Roethlisberger promptly led the Pittsburgh offense 74 yards in five plays, finding the end zone again with a five-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ebron, the former Colts Pro Bowl tight end, cutting Indy's lead to 24-21 with 14:57 left in the fourth quarter.
The next drive for the Colts: got as far as the 50-yard line, ending with a Rivers sack on third down. Ten plays later, on 1st and 10 from the Indianapolis 25-yard line, Roethlisberger, lined up in the shotgun, executed a nifty pump fake that froze safety Tavon Wilson in his tracks, giving Smith-Schuster just enough space past safety Julian Blackmon in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
With 7:43 left in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had officially erased a 17-point deficit to take their first lead of the ballgame, 28-24.
The Colts' offense would get a couple more cracks at taking a late lead, but Rivers would be picked off by Hilton on the ensuing Indy drive, and then the Colts would get as far as the Steelers' 33-yard line on their final effort before turning the ball over on downs one last time.
It was a true tale of two halves for the Colts on Sunday: they had 217 total yards in the first half, and just 148 in the second half; Indy limited Pittsburgh to 93 yards in the first half, but allowed 261 over the final two quarters.
"We got in a rut on offense in the second half, to say the least," Reich said. "Defensively, in the second half, just too many big plays. (Didn't) make them go the long route; they got big plays, and obviously big penalties. Their big plays just weren't all completions, but a couple penalties in there."
The Colts, who entered the day as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture, are now on the outside looking in. Indy plays host to the 1-14 Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday in their 2020 regular season finale at Lucas Oil Stadium needing a win and some outside help to earn a postseason berth, even if they get to 11 wins.
As of now, that help could be in the form of a Colts win AND:
» Two losses by the Tennessee Titans to finish their season; the Titans take on the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers tonight at Lambeau Field, and then travel to take on the Houston Texans next week.
» Week 17 losses by either the Miami Dolphins (on the road to the Buffalo Bills), the Baltimore Ravens (on the road to the Cincinnati Bengals) or the Cleveland Browns (at home to the Steelers [12-3], who wrapped up the AFC North title with their win over the Colts today).
"What we just talked about was, you know, we no longer control our own destiny," Reich said. "But all we can do is take care of our own business, and that means learning from this film, having a good week of practice and then finishing up the regular season with a great performance. And then, hopefully, we get some help."
See all the action on the field at Heinz Field as the Indianapolis Colts host the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16.