ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The margin of error in most NFL games is already minuscule, but in the postseason, the difference between wins and losses — and those who hoist the Lombardi trophy and those who don't — pretty much always comes down to about four or five crucial plays over the course of a game.
On Saturday, the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts, on paper, dominated the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills in their 2020 Wild Card Round matchup in Western New York. But when it came down to those four or five crucial plays — a turnover on downs on 4th and Goal, a costly offsides penalty, a missed chip shot field goal or a blown coverage against the league's top receiver — the Colts, despite their successes in all three phases otherwise, just couldn't get the job done.
The result was a narrow 27-24, season-ending loss to the Bills, who advance to next week's Divisional Round.
"It's very hard to stomach," Colts head coach Frank Reich said of the self-inflicted wounds on Saturday. "When you get in the playoffs, you have a good team and you know you can do it. I know we have the team to go all the way, but we didn't get that done today. Like you said, we gave ourselves chances, but we just didn't get it done."
The Colts (11-6) entered Saturday's game a 6.5-point underdog to the No. 2-seed Bills (14-3), who ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak and were one of the best overall teams in the NFL the entire season.
By the end of the day, the box score would indicate a dominant performance by Indianapolis, however. The Colts outgained the league's No. 2-ranked offense 472 total yards to 397; averaged 5.4 yards per carry; didn't turn the ball over; had just two accepted penalties for 10 yards; converted 9-of-17 (53 percent) of their attempts on third down; allowed just 2-of-9 (22 percent) third-down conversions by the Bills; and dominated the time of possession battle, 34:17 to 25:43.
But Saturday's game essentially came down to a few key sequences that didn't end up going the Colts' way:
» 1:49, first quarter: The Colts jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but the Bills, on their second offensive drive, were able to drive right down the field. Facing 2nd and Goal from the 3, however, quarterback Josh Allen — an MVP candidate in just his third season in 2020 — was bottled up on an obvious quarterback draw. Out of nowhere, however, Allen decided to fling a pass to the end zone to tight end Zack Moss, who was left wide open by an Indy defense that was sure Allen was running with the football, for a Buffalo touchdown.
» 2:00, second quarter: Up 10-7, the Colts were on the doorstep of a potentially huge touchdown just before the end of the first half. A 16-yard completion from quarterback Philip Rivers to tight end Mo Alie-Cox set up 1st and Goal at the 4-yard line, and then a two-yard completion from Rivers to tight end Trey Burton made it 2nd and Goal from the 2. On the next play, Reich tried to catch the Bills' defense off-guard with a wildcat formation, but running back Nyheim Hines, who took the snap and faked the handoff to fellow running back Jonathan Taylor, could only get one yard to the 1. On 3rd and Goal from the 1, the Colts elected to go with a pitch play to the left to Taylor, the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month, but he was stuffed for a loss of three yards. Instead of going for the three points on the road, Reich kept the offense on the field for 4th and Goal from the 4; wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. got himself open in the end zone, but Rivers' pass was just out of his grasp on an all-out dive. Turnover on downs. No points.
» 0:37, second quarter: With a little momentum from their fourth-down stop, the Bills quickly moved the ball down the field on their final drive of the second half. With 37 seconds left in the second quarter, however, Buffalo faced 4th and 3 from the Indy 26-yard line, but kept its offense on the field, most likely to try to draw the defense offsides before attempting a field goal. But defensive end Kemoko Turay fell for Allen's hard count, jumping offsides and giving the Bills a fresh set of downs; three plays later, Allen would run it into the end zone from five yards out for a touchdown, completing a 10-play, 96-yard drive and giving Buffalo a 14-10 lead just before the end of the half. On the drive, Buffalo also had two tightrope sideline grabs confirmed via replay as catches, while a diving interception by rookie cornerback Isaiah Rodgers was overturned. The Bills would then turn around and score a field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter for a 10-point swing to take a 17-10 lead.
» 10:20, third quarter: On 3rd and 7 from the Indy 28-yard line, the Colts' offense huddles and then approaches the ball, but finds the play clock has already ticked down significantly. With one second left on the play clock, head coach Frank Reich elects to call a timeout — not ideal to burn one like that in the second half of such a crucial matchup, but he wasn't left much of a choice on a third-down play. Rivers would ultimately connect with tight end Jack Doyle for a 12-yard gain to move the chains on the next play.
» 3:36, third quarter: Later in that drive, the Colts can only get as close as the Buffalo 15-yard line. On 4th and 7, the team sends out rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who had connected on a 30-yard field goal on Indy's opening drive, but this time, his 33-yard field goal attempt bangs off the right upright and is no good. The Bills still lead, 17-10.
» 14:24, fourth quarter: Bills running back Zack Moss has a six-yard run to the right end, and is taken down by linebacker Darius Leonard and T.J. Carrie. The ball pops out at the end of the play, and seems to be recovered by safety Khari Willis, but Moss is ruled down by contact. The Colts challenge the play, but it's ultimately upheld, and Indy is now down to one timeout for the rest of the game.
» 14:17, fourth quarter: Of course, on the very next play following the failed challenge, Allen launches a deep pass over the top to Stefon Diggs — the NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2020 — for a 35-yard touchdown. Diggs ran by the cornerback Carrie, who had no safety help over the top. The Bills take a commanding 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
» 11:36, fourth quarter: The Colts respond with a quick seven-play, 75-yard drive that ends with a Rivers nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zach Pascal. The Bills then jump offsides on the point-after attempt, so Reich elects to attempt a two-point conversion with the ball now at the 1 1/2-yard line. But Taylor is stuffed on his rush attempt up the middle; the Colts cut the Bills' lead to 24-16.
The Colts did everything they could to battle back from there, however.
Buffalo knocked in a 54-yard field goal on the ensuing drive to go up 11, 27-16, with 8:13 left, but Rivers and the Colts' offense, once again, couldn't be stopped, going 76 yards in just five plays and 1:55, as the veteran quarterback found Doyle wide open in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt — a Rivers pass to Doyle — was good, and the Colts, all of a sudden, trailed by just three, 27-24, with 6:20 left in the ballgame.
The Colts' defense stood tall on the next Bills possession; on 1st and 10 from the Indy 34, Allen was sacked by defensive tackle/end Denico Autry, who knocked the ball out of the quarterback's hand, causing it to bounce backwards. Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad nearly fell on it, but ultimately it was recovered by guard Daryl Williams at the Buffalo 43.
The Bills were forced to punt three plays later, setting up the Colts, down three points and with no timeouts left, with a potential game-tying or game-winning drive from their own 14-yard line with 2:30 remaining.
Indianapolis would get as close as the Buffalo 46-yard line, but the game clock and field position just wasn't in its favor. On 4th and 11 from the Buffalo 47, Rivers' heave towards the end zone was knocked to the turf, ending Indy's season.
For Reich and Rivers, the game ultimately came down to the red zone. The Colts scored touchdowns on just 2-of-5 trips inside the Buffalo 20, while the Bills scored touchdowns on both of their red zone opportunities.
"It's frustrating," Reich said. "I thought we played well on defense. I thought we played really well on offense as well. We moved the ball, I didn't feel like they could stop us. We just need to be better in the red zone. We need to coach better and play better in the red zone and have a chance to put that game away."
"We took care of the football; we were 53% on third down which is a win, but we didn't score in the red zone. That was obviously the difference in the game," said Rivers, who completed 27-of-46 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. "Kick a field goal in the second drive, didn't get a touchdown on the fourth down, missed a field goal. You look at those – there you go. That's the difference in the game because we had 472 yards of offense, two penalties, no turnovers. We played well but didn't play well enough."
The Colts now head into the offseason with a few key questions needing answers — particularly at the quarterback position, where both Rivers and backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett are set to become free agents.
But after an 11-win season, a postseason appearance and six All-Pro selections, there's clearly a solid foundation in place and plenty of positive momentum heading into the 2021 season.
Saturday's Wild Card Round loss to the Bills is clear proof of just how close the Colts have gotten.
"A few too many self-inflicted wounds here and there, but you're going up against a good football team so hats off to them. They played a good game, but at the end of the day what I said to the guys in there was I'm awfully proud of our team," Reich said. "I thought our players played well, they played hard. We just lost a tough game to a good football team in playoff football."
See all the action on the field at Bills Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts take on the Buffalo Bills in their Wild Card matchup.