It would've been silly to ask anyone in the Colts' locker room – or any locker room around the NFL on Sunday – if, in the wake of losing a football game, they were okay with it because it meant their team locked in a better pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. That's not how players are wired. You don't make it to this level of football without absolutely hating to lose, no matter if your team is 4-11-1 and has been out of the playoffs for weeks.
"We had a losing season. I'm pretty pissed off, to be honest," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Obviously high expectations, and for our season to go the way it did, and to obviously end the way it did, I mean, it sucks."
So, yes, the Colts will pick fourth in the 2023 NFL Draft by virtue of their loss to the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos' win over the Los Angeles Chargers. But another way to understand this mentality is from the opposing sideline. The Texans would've secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft with a loss, but after tight end Jordan Akins hauled in a last-ditch touchdown with 58 seconds left, the Texans elected to go for two instead of trying a game-tying PAT.
Akins wound up converting the two-point try on a pass from quarterback Davis Mills, and the Texans won, 32-31; they'll now pick second in this year's draft behind the Chicago Bears. If the Texans had lost, they would've picked first in late April.
"You're saying, hey, guys, playing this last game, all that you've been working for all your life, you play to win, forget that, lose the game on purpose," Texans head coach Lovie Smith said (the Texans parted ways with Smith after Sunday's game). "I think that would be a hard one to get by. They wouldn't expect me to say that. I didn't. Each week our game plan to be to win the game. It's kind of simple as that. That's what we followed through on today."
Going around the home locker room after Sunday's game, every player and coach subscribed to the mentality Smith explained there. Nobody was thinking about what a top-five pick may bring. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, that's what the focus was on – being frustrated with being defeated again, the team's seventh in a row, to end the 2022 season.
2. Zaire Franklin set a franchise record.
About two minutes into the second half, Franklin went down after an awkward collision with Texans guard A.J. Cann. He rolled around on the turf and grabbed his ankle, and the scene felt especially cruel – Franklin was just one tackle away from setting a new franchise record for most tackles in a season.
After being attended to by the Colts' athletic training staff, Franklin walked off the field under his own power and went straight to the bench, not the sideline injury tent. He was back on the field for the Colts' next defensive series, and in the fourth quarter he got his Colts record 164th tackle of the season.
For Franklin, there was no doubt he was going to finish the game.
"Four-and-whatever, down 10-points in a game that really doesn't mean anything, but if I started a game, I want to finish it," Franklin said. "Being out there with my teammates means everything to me. I know they depend on me, and if I ever could go, I'm going to go no matter the circumstance no matter, whatever it is.
"When I was down, as soon as I could feel my ankle, I was like 'you know what? Let's see if we can move on it and get back out there.' There was no way I wasn't going to come back in for the guys."
Franklin went on to add two more tackles, including a sack, and finished the season with 166 tackles – three more than previous record holder and current teammate Shaquille Leonard had in 2018.
"A combination of a lot of hard work, just believing in myself, and trusting in my teammates," Franklin said. "I'm thankful for the coaches and my teammates who put me in the right position to make plays. It's been a journey. I'm just thankful that I was able to prove myself in the league this year and stamp myself as a true player in this league and playmaker. And this record is just the icing on top."
3. Parris Campbell accomplished his personal goal – and then some.
Campbell's main individual goal for the 2022 season was to stay healthy for all 17 games, which he accomplished after completing Sunday's game. But Campbell did much more than just play in every game of a season for the first time in his career.
Campbell played 63 of the Colts 70 offensive snaps (90 percent), and finished 2022 having played the second-most snaps – 973 – among Colts skill position players behind only wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. And Campbell played 75 percent or more of his team's offensive snaps in 16 of those 17 games, highlighting his durability, the product of hours upon hours spent in the training room taking care of his body over the last few months.
And Campbell proved the "injury-prone" label affixed to his name over the last few seasons wasn't fair. The injuries that limited him from 2019-2021 were the product of truly terrible luck and weren't preventable. With better (and normal) luck, and with a continued dedication to taking care of his body, Campbell was available and durable in 2022 – and he was productive, too.
Campbell finished the season with 66 catches for 623 yards with three touchdowns, and he added five rushes for 58 yards.
After the game, Campbell talked about how appreciative and thankful he was to have played in every game. But it also made me think back to what Campbell said in May during OTAs:
"From the outside looking in, people say, 'Oh, he can't stay healthy.' Excuse my language, but to hell with that," Campbell said six and a half months ago. "I know who I am at the end of the day, I know what type of player I am. I know why I was drafted here, and the (coaching) staff room, they know. They know I've been through a lot, but they know the type of player I am as well."
The Colts take on the Houston Texans in Week 18 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
4. Zack Moss had a fantastic game.
Midway through the third quarter, Moss took a handoff from quarterback Sam Ehlinger on the Texans' 15-yard line on a second-and-eight.
Moss was hit by defensive back Desmond King II a yard behind the line of scrimmage and ripped through the Texans defender's arm tackle. Moss was wrapped up at the 13-yard line by Texans defensive back Jonathan Owens, but kept his legs moving and powerfully fought through that tackle, too. Moss then burst ahead and carried Texans defensive back Tremon Smith for five yards across the goal line for a remarkable 15-yard touchdown run.
Moss, the 2020 third-round pick acquired along with a 2023 conditional sixth-round draft pick from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for running back Nyheim Hines in early November, finished the game with 18 carries for 114 yards with a touchdown. The 114 yards were a career high.
Over the final four games of 2022 – with Jonathan Taylor either out or on injured reserve – Moss carried 69 times for 334 yards (4.8 yards/carry). His physicality shined both with the ball in his hands and in pass protection, and Moss put plenty of good things on tape for a guy who will have a chance to earn his spot as the Colts' primary backup to Taylor in 2023.
"Since I've been here, a couple months now, I think we've just made steps, each and every week," Moss said. "We're a young team with a lot of good vets mixed in. We've got a lot of good pieces. I can't wait to get a full season with these guys and continue to see us grow and get to where we want to be at."
5. Rodney Thomas II's fantastic season ended on an unfortunate note.
Thomas was, understandably, not in the mindset to discuss the things he did well on Sunday – and over the course of a remarkable rookie season – in the immediate aftermath of the Colts' loss to the Texans. On fourth and 20 with just over a minute left, Mills was flushed to his right and flung a Hail Mary to the end zone while under pressure by defensive tackle Grover Stewart and defensive end Kwity Paye.
Thomas leapt in the air at the goal line but mis-timed his jump. The ball sailed just over his out-stretched hands and landed in the arms of Akins for a touchdown, which brought the Texans to within one with just under a minute left. Smith elected to go for two, and Akins caught the go-ahead and ultimately game-winning conversion from Mills.
After the game, Thomas was gutted that he didn't come up with a game-clinching play.
"(We had) nothing but heart, nothing but grit, nothing but fight coming out of this team," Thomas said. "That's why it's killing me the end of the game happened the way it was. Just gotta make the play."
In the locker room, though, Franklin offered words of encouragement and perspective to the rookie safety.
"I just told him that 'there is nobody in the NFL that I would rather have in that situation than him in that moment right there.' I would not choose anybody else in that moment for him. He's a young superstar. He's led our team in interceptions. He's a playmaker. He's red line to red line. It goes on and on.
"I know this feels like his darkest moment, but trust me, better is ahead of him. I am always here for him no matter what, in anything, regardless of what he needs. I know it's going to sting, and I know it hurts, but like I said he'll be stronger because of it."
Thomas, though, had an outstanding 2022 rookie season – especially for someone who was the No. 239 overall pick in last year's draft. Thomas' four interceptions were a team-high, and he was consistently in the right place at the right time at safety in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme.
And Thomas recorded his fourth interception of his rookie year on Sunday in an emotional moment – Thomas is extremely close with Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamilin, who suffered a cardiac arrest last week against the Cincinnati Bengals and required CPR on the field at Paycor Stadium to save his life. Thomas visited Hamlin in the hospital last week while the 24-year-old was still sedated and intubated.
Hamilin over the last few days has made remarkable progress thanks to the Bills' athletic training staff that saved his life on Monday, and thanks to the medical professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center that've cared for him since.
"I'm just glad he's good," Thomas said. "I'm just glad he's okay."