It couldn’t last forever.
The Indianapolis Colts love playing with fire. That fire will be ever-present for a team that is on the margins of being anywhere from 7-9 to 11-5. And that fire will burn the Colts now and then.
In the 24-20 loss to Miami on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts couldn’t quite calibrate their ebb and their flow. The 448 yards of total offense — including 315 in the first half, the Colts’ best for a half since 2004 — were a testament that the Colts’ offense wasn’t broken.
But Miami’s three sacks — including a game-clincher by ex-Colt Phillip Wheeler with 1:35 left — were evidence that the protection still wasn’t always there. A 50-percent success rate in the red zone screamed loudly as to the Colts’ missed opportunities.
Miami’s 398 total yards indicated that the Colts’ defense wasn’t able to break the Dolphins enough, despite a decent second-half pass rush put on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Even quarterback Andrew Luck — who keeps the Colts alive more than they deserve at times — was fallible with some forced passes and a fourth-quarter interception.
When you have a loss where there was nothing glaringly bad or out of the norm, you just move on. What matters now is how the Colts respond to a mild case of game-to-game adversity.
I specify “game-to-game adversity” because the Colts proved they could handle real adversity in 2012 when coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer. The team and Pagano himself passed that test with flying colors.
Game-to-game adversity is far more run-of-the-mill, but also an important hurdle for any team to clear on its way to being a consistent winner. Game-to-game adversity is about exorcising the devil in the details. It’s about fixing little things. Tweaking, tinkering, making the small adjustments, but to make them right. All done under the microscope of higher expectations.
Game-to-game adversity is something the Colts only rarely faced in the 2012 season.
The Colts started 2-3, but at no point could it realistically be said that they were under pressure to win in that stretch. Luck was a rookie quarterback, the head coach was felled by a horrible disease, and the only truly poor loss in that stretch was a home setback against Jacksonville.
At that point, the mission for the young Colts was to avoid being overwhelmed. They dusted themselves off, united behind a common cause and had a fulfilling 11-5 playoff season.
Having done it once, the playoffs are expected, or at least a realistic goal. So the paradigm is different. Unlike 2012, when the Colts’ unexpected success was, to a degree, gravy, repeating success increases the weight on the Colts’ shoulders, and the burden of an avoidable loss such as the one suffered on Sunday.
The pressure is different. It messes with your head. For some teams and some players, it can make exorcising that devil in the details of getting better a daunting task.
Postgame mood is hardly the most accurate barometer to assess how a team will respond, but all of the right things were said.
Luck, as leaders will, took the blame for his part.
“I guess [I’m] a little angry at myself. Credit to [the Dolphins], they put us in all of these situations, but I feel like we are a better team than what we showed out there,” Luck said.
Pagano had few excuses to offer, even when there were some calls — including a possible pass interference on Brent Grimes’ fourth-quarter interception — that could have given him a chance to give the Colts an out.
“We just didn’t make enough plays. They made just enough to get out of here with a win,” Pagano said.
The vibe was certainly one of disappointment, but also that it wasn’t a loss the Colts couldn’t recover from.
That’s undoubtedly the right way for the Colts to be, but you also got the sense this might be a crossroads moment. You got the sense that maybe they also want to see for themselves how they respond.
The bounce-back task won’t be easy. The Colts travel to defending NFC champion San Francisco next Sunday. It’s followed by a winnable, but tricky, trip to Jacksonville a week later.
Seattle, with its impressive defense and Super Bowl aspirations, visits Lucas Oil on Oct. 6. Another West Coast trip, this time to improving San Diego, follows on Oct. 13. Then will be the Circus Maximus of Peyton Manning’s return to Indy with Denver on Oct. 20.
There’s not a single game in that stretch the Colts are a lock to win if they let their guard down. Game-to-game adversity might be run-of-the-mill, but it’s dangerous if it’s not curtailed.
“This ain’t no sprint,” Pagano said. “It’s Week 2. We want to win at home. We want to win every ballgame. We’re going to compete and prepare to win every ball game. We’ll make the corrections and get guys healthy and get guys back.”
It’s one thing to say it — Pagano could hardly be faulted for saying anything else — now we’ll see if the Colts do it.
It’s your move, Colts. Which direction do you go?
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @TribStarTodd.