INDIANAPOLIS — Heading into undoubtedly the most challenging portion of their schedule starting this week, the Indianapolis Colts wanted to prove they belong in the conversation among the best of the best in the AFC.
And the Colts would've done just that if they somehow could've found a way to get a win in Sunday's Week 9 home matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
For the first half of the game, Indianapolis — led by a stifling performance by its defense, which dominated the league's No. 1 rushing attack — was well on its way.
That momentum seemed to carry over early into third quarter, as defensive tackle DeForest Buckner poked the ball out of running back Gus Edwards' grip on a 1st-and-Goal run on Baltimore's opening drive of the second half; linebacker Darius Leonard recovered, and then juggled, the loose ball, which was ultimately picked up by fellow linebacker Bobby Okereke and returned 11 yards to the Indianapolis 23-yard line.
It seemed like just about everything was going the Colts' way at the time.
Until it wasn't.
On the very next play, quarterback Philip Rivers threw deep down the right sideline towards wide receiver Marcus Johnson, who seemingly was able to knock a would-be interception out of the hands of cornerback Marcus Peters as he fell to the turf. Incomplete pass.
But Ravens head coach John Harbaugh challenged the ruling on the field, believing Peters not only intercepted the pass, but that he also fumbled the ball, which was recovered by safety Chuck Clark at the Baltimore 46-yard line.
After review, the officials agreed with Harbaugh's assertion, giving the ball right back to Baltimore. Ten plays later, Edwards was able to punch it into the end zone from one yard out, giving the Ravens a 14-10 lead, their first of the ballgame.
The Indy offense couldn't get much of anything going the rest of the way from there, while Baltimore's offense, led by reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, was finally able to wear out the Colts' defense over the final two quarters, as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points and handed Indianapolis a 24-10 loss in front of 12,200 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Tough loss against a good football team," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "We went in with a lead at halftime and came out and did not start well in the second half, and then they got it going a little bit, their offense got it going a little bit, which we expected. They have good players.
"We'll learn from this," Reich continued. "Obviously, we have to watch the film to detail it out more, but just more conviction that I have that we have the right guys to go where we want to go."
While their first drive of the ballgame ended with a punt, the Colts (5-3) certainly had an ideal start in Sunday's game, as the Indy defense forced Baltimore (6-2) into a three-and-out on its opening drive, and then the offense drove right down the field on its second drive, as running back Jonathan Taylor dove over the pile on 1st and Goal from the 1-yard line to give Indianapolis a 7-0 lead with 5:36 left in the first quarter.
After another Ravens three-and-out, and then a facemask penalty on the ensuing punt, the Colts were set up with prime field position at their own 42-yard line. On first down, Rivers connected with wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who followed a couple solid blocks by Braden Smith and Zach Pascal to get 13 yards to the Baltimore 45.
Taylor then rumbled his way down the right sideline for a gain of nine yards, but before going down he was stripped of the football by Peters, which was recovered by Clark and returned 65 yards for a game-tying touchdown at the 1:11 mark of the second quarter.
It was the first-career fumble for the rookie Taylor, the Colts' second-round pick out of Wisconsin.
"He's been doing a great job with ball security the whole year," Reich said of Taylor. "This team, this defense is the best defense in the NFL at causing fumbles. They are the best. We talked about it all week. That there was going to be premium on ball security, in particular on fumbles — that they are better at than anybody."
Still, with the way the defense was playing, the Colts had plenty of confidence going into halftime with a 10-7 lead, thanks to a 43-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship late in the second quarter.
The Ravens, who entered Sunday's game averaging an NFL-best 178.7 rushing yards per game, were held to just 18 total rushing yards on 10 carries (1.8 avg.) in the first two quarters; Jackson, Baltimore speedy quarterback, had four first-half carries for just 15 yards (3.8 avg.).
"We played assignment football," Buckner said of the Colts' defensive effort in the first half. "Everybody has an assignment, especially in the option game. If you have the dive, take the dive. If you have the quarterback, get the quarterback. Guys just have to play hard and win their individual battles."
Then came the wacky sequence of events early in the third quarter — the goal-to-go takeaway by the Colts' defense, and then the immediate Rivers interception on the very next play.
The Colts' sideline might not have agreed with the overturned call that gave the ball back to the Ravens, but they also know they didn't do a good enough job overcoming the adversity from that point on.
"They called it an interception so it's an interception," Rivers said. "Bottom line is I shouldn't have thrown the ball, or shouldn't have thrown it short. You throw it short, you leave it up to other people's hands and you never know what will happen."
"In the second half, both sides of the ball weren't good enough," Reich said. "The end of the story was, in the second half as a team we were not good enough against a team you have to play a full 60 minutes."
The Colts had 339 yards of total offense on the day. Rivers completed 25-of-43 passes for 227 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, while Pittman Jr. had a game- and career-high 56 receiving yards. Undrafted rookie wide receiver DeMichael Harris, who was just called up from the practice squad on Saturday, had 55 yards of total offense on the day — 28 on run plays and 27 as a receiver.
"I was excited to see DeMichael with the ball in his hands," Reich said. "I have a lot of confidence in him; he did a nice job. It's not too big for him as we like to say as coaches. He's an explosive athlete, he's really smart and I think there is a lot of upside with DeMichael."
Leonard had a monster day for the Colts' defense, finishing with 15 total tackles (one for a loss), 13 of which were solo stops, the most in a single game in the NFL this season. The Indy defense as a unit had nine tackles for loss for a second straight game; defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, who also had a sack, and defensive tackle Grover Stewart had two apiece.
Baltimore was held to just 266 yards of total offense on the day, including 38 rushing attempts for 110 yards for an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Jackson had 13 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown, and also completed 19-of-23 passes for 170 yards; he completed all 10 of his pass attempts in the second half.
The good news for the Colts is they don't have much time to dwell on Sunday's loss, as they travel to take on the AFC South Division-leading Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
Tennessee improved to 6-2 on the year today with a 24-17 win over the Chicago Bears.
The Colts still have plenty of time to move up the ladder in the AFC playoff picture, but, as Reich said, Sunday's loss to the Ravens was "definitely an opportunity missed."
"We talked coming into this game of the importance about getting off to a fast start and win the turnover battle. We didn't win the turnover battle," Reich said. "They are like every other team and we're like every other team — you lose the turnover battle, the chances of losing go up significantly, especially against a good football team. We have to do a better job there. When we've won the turnover battle we win, and when we haven't, we've lost.
"We'll look forward to getting this out of our system really quick and get ready for Thursday night."
See all the action on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts take on the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9.