INDIANAPOLIS – There were reasons the offense went from prolific to putrid in the blink of an eye, one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses more resembled a sieve than a stonewall, a team with so much on the line was handed the worst beating in its long series with its most bitter AFC South rival and that same team saw its playoff aspirations take a serious hit.
But there was absolutely no excuse for what transpired Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
No excuse for: Tennessee Titans 45, Indianapolis Colts 26.
No excuse for the NFL’s 3rd-ranked run defense getting pulverized by Derrick Henry, who accounted for 178 of the Titans’ 229 rushing yards. For those keeping track at home, that’s three straight 100-yard games for Henry against Matt Eberflus’ defense. No other back has cracked the 100-yard mark against the Colts since Eberflus’ arrival in 2018.
“It sucks,’’ Darius Leonard said in a post-game Zoom conference that revealed the All-Pro linebacker’s utter frustration with what transpired. “When you’re playing against a team like that and you’re playing against a back like that, you want to stop the run.
“In the first half, we didn’t do that.’’
There were reasons.
The defensive catalyst, tackle DeForest Buckner, was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday. End and leading pass rusher Denico Autry missed his second game after a positive COVID-19 test. Strong-side linebacker Bobby Okereke was ruled out with an ankle injury.
But there was no excuse for the defense giving up touchdowns on five of the Titans’ six first-half possessions and yielding season highs in points (45), total yards (449), rushing yards (229) and first downs (28).
And there was no excuse for the league’s 2nd-ranked defense allowing 35 first-half points at home for just the second time in franchise history, and the first time since 1985. The Titans scored their most points and enjoyed their most lopsided win in the series.
“Obviously a tough loss,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “Came in here feeling confident, feeling prepared. Was just a very poor effort. Got outplayed, got outcoached really in all three phases.
“Give the Titans credit. They came in here with something to prove and they did that.’’
The offense, meanwhile, hummed out of the gate. Two drives, two touchdowns. But on the second TD – Jacoby Brissett’s 1-yarder – left tackle Anthony Castonzo suffered an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and did not return.
Reich was unable to provide a post-game update other than to offer, “I don’t think it’s the worst-case scenario.’’
Well, it was for the offense, at least in the short term. Le’Raven Clark stepped in and was unable to hold up. He allowed Harold Landry to pressure Philip Rivers on his first pass protection opportunity – an incompletion – and it never seemed to get any better.
Let the facts speak for them. In two drives with Castonzo, the offense generated 141 yards and two TDs on 18 plays. On the next six and excluding a kneel-down at the end of the first half, it managed 58 yards on 25 plays. There were five punts and a Rivers’ interception.
“I think they did ramp up the pressure and pressured a heck of a lot more than in the first outing,’’ Rivers said. “Was it in correspondence to injuries up front? I don’t know. I thought the guys up front fought their tail off.
“We started off great on those first two drives and then obviously hit that six series lull . . . it just wasn’t very good. It was just a lot of reasons. What sums it up is just a lack of execution.’’
It would seem likely the knee injury sidelines Castonzo for at least next Sunday’s trip to Houston. And here’s where we remind everyone the Colts are 2-11 without Castonzo at left tackle.
The offensive line already was without Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, who was ruled out Saturday with a neck injury. Also, rookie running back Jonathan Taylor was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday.
Reich never has used injuries – or COVID – as an excuse, and didn’t start Sunday.
“On the sideline when a guy gets hurt, there’s never any, ‘Uh oh, what are we going to do now?’’’ he said. “I have the training staff come over to me and say, ‘Hey, Castonzo’s out.’ So, we’re good. We just move on.
“You literally don’t flinch . . . first and foremost, you believe in those guys.’’
On a grander scale, the Colts squandered an incredible opportunity in pursuit of their first AFC South title since 2014 and a postseason berth.
They entered the game as the AFC’s No. 4 seed and division front-runner. With a win over the Titans, they had a 91% chance to reach the playoffs and an 83% shot to win the AFC South.
Now, the odds dip to 53% to make the postseason and 14% to win the division, according to FiveThiryEight.com. If Indy is able to win its next two on the road – Sunday at Houston, Dec. 13 at the Las Vegas Raiders – the playoff odds bounce to 91%.
They’re the AFC’s No. 7 seed, a notch ahead of the 6-4 Baltimore Ravens.
Rivers did his best to quickly put the Titans debacle behind him and look ahead.
“It’s one game,’’ he said. “It’s just like we talked about a few weeks ago. It’s a week-to-week league. A huge win against Tennessee on the road. Huge win against the Packers and now here we sit.
“I know coach has told you guys, you can’t ride that wave. We can’t ride that wave. We have to just dig back in, look at our play critically and regroup for another division game on the road next week and there’s five to play.
“A lot can happen in five weeks as we know, but we’re the same guys that pulled in here five hours ago, exact same guys.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.