Another close loss gives Colts boost in pursuit of lofty draft pick

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BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 23: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts hug after the Baltimore Ravens 23-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium on December 23, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What caught our eye in the Indianapolis Colts’ 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Saturday at rainy, windy M&T Bank Stadium.

Silver lining: It will serve as zero consolation for Chuck Pagano and his players – zero – but the latest dose of short-term frustration came with long-range ramifications. The sixth loss this season by 7 points or fewer guarantees the 3-12 Colts no worse than the 3rd overall pick in next April’s NFL draft. They close a dismal season Dec. 31 at home against the 4-10 Houston Texans, and could move into the No. 2 draft slot with some help from the 2-12 New York Giants. The Giants are at 6-8 Arizona Christmas Eve before closing at home New Year’s Eve against 6-8 Washington.

The coaches and players want to go out and into an uncertain offseason on a high note by snapping a six-game losing streak. The fan base craves the best draft position possible.

Each stance is understandable.

New life: It seemingly was over. Even though a weary Colts defense came up with a critical stop and forced a Ravens punt from the Baltimore 41, only 2:45 remained and Indy would have no timeouts on the ensuing drive. Then, rookie linebacker Anthony Walker burst through the middle of the line and smothered Sam Koch’s punt. Rookie Tarell Basham covered it at the Baltimore 27.

“It was huge,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “It was just what we needed. Gave us a chance to tie that game and go into overtime and possibly win it. It was huge.’’

It was the Colts’ first blocked punt since Jonathan Newsome’s against Pittsburgh in 2014.

Then the end: Suffice it say the rain-drenched crowd was more than a little nervous following Walker’s block. Imagine, the Ravens’ playoff aspirations essentially being snuffed out by the hated Colts.

Jacoby Brissett moved the offense to a first-and-10 at the 17 with a 4-yard completion to Frank Gore and a 6-yarder to Jack Doyle. Gore then bulled up the middle for 7. But the Ravens’ defense stiffened, burying Gore for a 3-yard loss and getting to Brissett for a third-down sack.

That left the Colts with a fourth-and-10 at the 17 with 1:43 remaining.

Brissett looked to Hilton – who had six catches for 100 yards – who was matched up against cornerback Maurice Canady on the left hash mark.

“I was going to T.Y.,’’ Brissett in his post-game press conference, “but T.Y. got held.’’

Yes, he did. Replays clearly showed contact around the 5-yard line, but he officials decided it wasn’t egregcious enough to warrant a penalty.

Did Hilton believe he was interfered with?

“I have to go back and see it, but I feel like (Canady) did,’’ he said. “I just have to go back and watch it.’’

Pagano’s response?

“Yeah, I mean, doesn’t matter, really,’’ he said.

It marked the second time in three games the Colts were on the wrong end of an official’s call, or non-call. In the 13-10 overtime loss at Buffalo, Brissett hit Doyle with a 2-point conversion with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining that gave the Colts an 8-7 lead. However, after a delay, the officials penalized Kamar Aiken for interference, negating the play. Adam Vinatieri converted the PAT for a 7-all tie, then the Bills won it in OT.

Positive streak: Again, it’s no consolation, but the Brissett-led offense continued to take care of the football, this time against a Ravens defense that had forced an NFL-high 33 turnovers. Even though the Ravens dropped a few potential interceptions, the Colts were turnover-free for a third straight game.

The last time they enjoyed a three-game streak with no turnovers: 2008.

Brissett completed 16-of-33 passes for 215 yards and a 14-yard touchdown to running back Frank Gore.

“I thought he was a warrior,’’ Pagano said. “I thought he did a heck of a job in tough conditions. It started to get pretty hairy there in the third quarter from a weather standpoint.’’

Tough day, no bonus: The day was memorable for all the wrong reasons for Vinatieri. He entered the game needing to convert at least three field goals without a miss over the final two games to finish the season by hitting at least 90 percent of his attempts and trigger a $500,000 bonus clause in his contract.

Any chance of that ended late in the first quarter when Ravens safety Tony Jefferson slipped through a crease in the right side of the Colts’ protection and blocked Vinatieri’s 38-yard attempt. With 4 seconds remaining in the first half, Vinatieri’s 60-yard attempt fell just short.

“With 4 seconds you can throw a Hail Mary to the end zone, but (we have) all the faith in the world in Vinny, arguably one of the best if not the best in the game,’’ Pagano said. “No hesitation throwing him out there for it and it was just an eyelash away.

“Kind of typical of our season. Seemed like the wind was blowing when we sent him out there, and it’s like it died as soon as he hit the ball.’’

Vinatieri bounced back rather nicely. He accounted for the Colts’ second-half scoring with 48-, 38- and 30-yard field goals.

On the season, he’s 27-of-32 (84.4 percent).

With his 10 points in the game, Vinatieri pushed his season total to 101 and extended his NFL record to 20 seasons with at least 100.

T.Y. rebounds: Hilton broke out of a prolonged slump, finishing with six catches and 100 yards. In his previous games, he was limited to 14 catches and 150 yards.

Hilton’s big afternoon continued his climb up the team’s charts. With 428 career receptions, he moved past Dallas Clark (427) into 4th place. Ahead of him: Marvin Harrison (1,102), Reggie Wayne (1,070) and Raymond Berry (631).

The 100-yard game was Hilton’s 28th, which is third behind Harrison (59) and Wayne (43). His 100 yards pushed his season output to 952 and gives him a solid shot at posting a fifth straight 1,000-yard season.

Tough day for D: Even though the defense came up with the key stop in the fourth quarter, it was manhandled much of the day by Joe Flacco and the Ravens. Baltimore finished with 323 total yards and 23 first downs, and played keepaway much of the day. The Ravens mounted five drives that consisted of at least 10 plays, which contributed to their wide advantages in time of possession (35:48-24-12) and offensive plays (71-59).

“We couldn’t get off the field,’’ Pagano said. “They kept us off balance a little bit and were able to stay on the field. Not enough.’’

This and that: Gore rushed 17 times for 68 yards and remains a longshot to hit the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight season and 10th time in his 13-year career. He needs 139 against the Texans in the season finale. . . . Cornerback Kenny Moore II and linebacker Antonio Morrison led the Colts with 9 tackles each. . . . Walker had 8, to go along with the blocked punt, in his first career start. . . . End Barkevious Mingo had 7 tackles, including two for loss, and one sack.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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