Forget final play, failed fourth-and-1s doomed Colts as 5-game win streak snapped

Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to pass during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 2, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It will be replayed and debated over and over and over again.

With the clock tick, tick, ticking down – the third-and-6 play at the Jacksonville 29-yard line was snapped with 9 seconds remaining – Erik Swoope caught an Andrew Luck pass to the right, headed toward the sideline and was driven out of bounds by Jalen Ramsey.

Four seconds, maybe 5, remained on the clock.

But the line judge was winding his arm, signaling to keep the clock running. Jeff Bergman ruled Swoope’s forward motion had stopped on the field, before he landed out of bounds.

“I thought he was out,’’ Frank Reich said, “but that was the call that they made. But I sure thought he was out.’’

So did tight end Eric Ebron.

“It was BS,’’ he said in the locker room after the Indianapolis Colts’ last-gasp drive ran out of seconds and left them with a 6-0 loss to the Jaguars. “He was out of bounds.

“Put me on (camera). I’ll say it.’’

The on-field decision was not reviewable, and it apparently wouldn’t have mattered.

“When forward progress is stopped with contact and the player is driven backward, the play is over at that point,’’ referee Alex Kemp told a pool reporter after the game. “It doesn’t matter where he lands . . . when he is contacted and driven backwards, the play is over.’’

End of game, and players and fans undoubtedly will complain long and hard.

If Swoope had been ruled out of bounds, Luck would have had one more shot from the 25 at winning a game the Colts desperately needed to keep alive their playoff hopes, but had done very little to earn. Instead, they returned home with a 6-6 record and their five-game winning streak a thing of the past.

“They’re making the plays at the critical moments, not even critical moments, consistently,’’ Luck said, “and we weren’t. We had our opportunities and we didn’t execute.

“I feel like I didn’t quite hold up my end of the bargain as sort of the orchestrator of the offense out there on the field. Didn’t get the ball to the open guy enough, didn’t do the simple things enough.’’

The Colts suffered their first shutout since being dominated by Jacksonville 27-0 in week 7 of last season when Luck was out all season with his shoulder issue, and their first in Luck’s 82 regular-season starts.

The last time they lost a game when their defense didn’t allow a touchdown: Oct. 20, 1997, a 9-6 loss to Buffalo.

“We knew it had a chance to be a one of those games,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just needed to execute a little it better on offense and not have the self-inflicted wounds.

“It came down to unforced errors, penalties. We had a couple of drops. It was kind of a similar formula to early in the year. Too many self-inflicted things on offense. We had a couple of calls that were hard calls to make.

“You’ve got to live with the calls that are made. We need to overcome those.’’

There it is.

In a game that involved more than 125 offensive snaps, the Colts – and their fan base – probably will be second-guessing three for the next several days:

  • Fourth-and-goal at the Jacksonville 1 early in the second quarter.
  • Fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 31 on the ensuing possession.
  • Fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 19 with 2:38 remaining and Indy trying to erase the Jaguars’ 6-0 lead.

The end result: nothing good and, obviously, zero points. Reich has shown his aggressive disposition in his first season as a head coach, and that again was on display Sunday.

In what was shaping up as an afternoon when points would be difficult to generate against the Jaguars’ No. 5-ranked defense, Reich repeatedly eschewed field-goal opportunities and looked for bigger things.

A quick refresher on those three fourth-and-1 decisions:

Fourth-and-goal at the 1:

A Luck shovel pass to rookie running back Jordan Wilkins was stopped short of the goal line up by Yannick Ngakoue. It’s worth remembering the Colts had taken a 3-0 lead on Adam Vinatieri’s 29-yard field goal, but an unnecessary roughness penalty on Jacksonville’s Taven Bryan convinced Reich to rightly take points off the board and resume the drive with a first-and-goal at the 5.

“We’re at the (1),’’ Reich said of the critical play. “That’s a pretty strong ‘Go,’ especially with our defense playing the way it was playing. We had a play a play that had multiple options on it. If it’s man-to-man, it goes to T.Y. (Hilton) probably.

“We got the shovel. We just weren’t quite synced up on that.’’

Fourth-and-1 at the 31:

Figuring into Reich’s decision to go for it on the previous possession was, failing a conversion, forcing Jacksonville to start from its own 1 with a quarterback (Cody Kessler) making his first start since 2016.

“Our defense went three-and-out and we get it back in field-goal position,’’ he said. “That’s why all the numbers say ‘Strong-go’ there.’’

After starting at the Jaguars’ 40, the Colts faced a fourth-and-1 and looked to an Ebron sweep to the right for a conversion. But Myles Jack got quick penetration, flipped Ebron into the air and Telvin Smith arrived to force a fumble.

Rather than looking for a fourth-down conversion, Reich could have had Vinatieri attempt a field goal in the 48-yard range.

Fourth-and-1 at the 19.

Luck completed 6-of-8 passes for 54 yards on a late fourth-quarter drive, but here he was again, desperately in need of 1 more yard. Instead, he was sacked for a 9-yard loss by Ronnie Harrison. The rookie safety came barreling in – untouched – from Luck’s blindside. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Mark Glowinski double-teamed one Jaguar defender while Swoope went out on a pass pattern without chipping Harrison.

“Felt like the pass that we called had enough options and they blitzed us off the backside,’’ Reich said. “They brought one more guy that we could handle. They made a good call on defense.’’

Just like that, the Colts saw the momentum gained during their five-game winning streak evaporate.

“When we had our chances down in the red zone and in the second half when we had things moving, we didn’t execute well enough,’’ Luck said. “Us just being sloppy.’’

Credit Jacksonville’s defense, which sacked Luck three times and hit him on six other occasions. The Colts averaged 34.6 points and 411 total yards during their five-game win streak. They entered the game as the NFL’s top third-down conversion offense (50.7 percent). Sunday, the Luck-led bunch was limited to 265 yards and converted only 5-of-18 times on third down, 5-of-21 if you included the failed fourth downs.

Anyone remember when the Colts rattled off 29 points and 306 yards in the first half of their first meeting with Jacksonville last month in Indy? Over the last six quarters against the Jaguars, 16 possessions netted zero points and 325 yards on 88 plays.

“It wasn’t good,’’ Reich said of his offense. “It was not good enough. Not every game’s going to be running up and down the field, especially when you play a defense like that in their home stadium.’’

Luck passed for 248 yards, but averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt and 7.5 yards per completion. He saw two streaks end: at least three touchdown passes in eight games, tied for the second-longest in NFL history, and at least one TD in 34 straight games.

“It’s disappointing,’’ he said, “I’m disappointed in myself, but we’ll get back to it and we’ll improve. This team has responded all year and that’s what we have to do.

“No one believes all is lost.’’

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