INDIANAPOLIS —"Any given Sunday" is typically used to explain the ebbs and flows of a team's schedule with the expectation that the seesaw of an NFL season will tip a team's way a few times over the course of 16 regular season games.
Sometimes it's a favorable call, a crazy bounce or just an exemplary performance by an individual or group that pushes a certain team over the top.
But for one reason or another, that phrase doesn't seem to apply to the 2017 Indianapolis Colts in terms of winning close games, no matter how well the team plays, individually or collectively, for large stretches within each 60-minute set.
Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium was yet another trip down frustration lane, as the home team held a 13-6 lead at halftime, saw that lead extend to 10 points, 16-6, and was up 16-13 with just over six minutes remaining in the ballgame.
Then it happened. Again.
On a day in which a literal bounce *did, *in fact, go the Colts' way — a second-quarter pass from Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was juggled by safety Darius Butler but fell safely in the hands of rookie cornerback Nate Hairston for his first-career NFL interception — there simply were not enough of them to help lift the Colts to victory, as the Titans were able to escape Indy with a 20-16 win.
Butler — professional, yet seemingly exasperated while talking to the media at his locker — reflected on this continuing weekly trend for his team after the loss.
"There's about 60 plays that go back and forth, and five or six plays that determine winning or losing that game," Butler said. "And more times than not this season the ball just bounced the wrong way for us."
The Colts have shown they're capable of strong spurts, and Sunday's game was no different. The Indy defense was dominant in the first three quarters, holding the Titans to just three rushing yards on 13 carries through the first 45 minutes of play and picking off Mariota on two straight Tennessee drives in the second quarter.
The forced turnovers led to 10 points — a 28-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri and a 14-yard rushing touchdown by Frank Gore, respectively — as the Colts entered halftime with the lead, or a share of the lead, for the ninth time in 11 games this season.
And in this game, like numerous others, the Colts allowed their opponent to hang around until their fortunes changed.
With a 10-point lead late in the third quarter, Colts running back Marlon Mack was unable to handle a pitch from quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and Titans safety Kevin Byard came up with the loose ball inside the Indianapolis five-yard line. One Colts defensive penalty later, and the Titans found the end zone for the first time all afternoon on a two-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to tight end Delanie Walker, getting Tennessee to within three points, 16-13, with 1:56 left in the third quarter.
A dominant fourth quarter on the ground for the Titans' offense and a final one-yard touchdown for running back DeMarco Murray would eventually give Tennessee all it needed to get its first-ever win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Mack made no excuses after the game, expressing similar regret as he did immediately after the play, where, in frustration, he pulled his helmet down tight on his forehead, almost seeming to want to disappear.
"Yeah, I just took my eye off the ball," Mack explained. "I should have just locked in and squeezed it in tight."
"It's definitely a hard pill to swallow, going out there and messing up, you definitely feel like it's on you."
But that was only one of the five to six plays Butler had referenced as being the difference each week. There were others — a bevy of penalties, any one of the Titans' eight sacks on the day, a couple dropped passes, etc. — that crept in and prevented the Colts from achieving consistency for an entire game.
"Obviously, another disappointing loss," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said as his team dropped to 3-8. on the season. "These are 60-minute ball games. They are not 30 minutes; they are not 45 minutes. They are 60-minute games. Plenty of opportunities to put that team away, we didn't take advantage of those opportunities."
Butler, a nine-year veteran, and Gore, a 13 year pro, both know that victory keeps slipping through their fingers, yet they've been around long enough and refuse to believe this Colts team isn't good enough to get the job done.
"It's very frustrating," Butler said. "It's one thing if you're a team where you know you're just not good enough to win; you don't have the players, you don't have the coaches, you don't have the scheme. That's one thing. But we're obviously good enough to play with any team that comes here or we go in their building."
Gore, whose rushing touchdown on Sunday tied Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett for 22nd on the NFL's all-time list (77), wasn't celebrating yet another career milestone after the game; he was already focusing on what the Colts need to do for the remainder of the season.
"The thing is it's the little things. We've got the guys in here to compete, but then again, we lost." Gore said. "I'm still going to play my behind off for my teammates and try to finish these last five (games). I think as a group, me and all the guys in here are going to do the same and that's what it is."
Even rookies like Hairston, who has seen action in 10 games so far his first NFL season, are battle tested and on the same page as the veterans.
"At the end of the day we lost," Hairston said. "And that's the only thing that's important. We didn't get the bounces. I didn't get the bounces. We've got five games left and we've got to figure it out."