INDIANAPOLIS — It was over.
Then it wasn’t.
Then it really was over, and social media erupted in disgust.
With 38 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game, the Indianapolis Colts had completed their highlight-filled, albeit mistake-strewn roller-coaster ride against the Cleveland Browns.
The sellout crowd would have blown the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium had it been closed and the scoreboard flashed:
Colts 38, Browns 33.
On third-and-4 at the Colts 13-yard line, linebacker E.J. Speed bore through the Browns’ protection, sacked P.J. Walker and forced a fumble that DeForest Buckner covered.
Except that far from the celebration, a yellow flag was crumpled inside the 5-yard line.
The officials had detected Darrell Baker Jr. making illegal contact with wideout Amari Cooper.
Forget the sack. Forget the game-ending fumble recovery. Baker bit on Cooper’s hard move to the inside and got grabby as the veteran wideout cut sharply to the corner.
First-and-goal Browns at the 8 with 38 seconds remaining.
On the very next play, Walker lofted a pass that was uncatchably high — maybe San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama gets a hand on it . . . maybe — but Baker again was flagged, this time for interfering with Donovan Peoples-Jones.
First-and-goal at the 1 with 33 seconds left.
It took four plays, but running back Kareem Hunt got just enough of the football across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
Browns 39, Colts 38.
Minutes after the controversial finish — the Colts’ fan base was incensed, even though the first call against Baker appeared spot on — Baker stood in front of his locker. Along with his two crushing penalties on the Browns’ final 12-play, 80-yard drive, he had coverage along the right sideline when Walker’s best pass of the game found wide receiver Elijah Moore for 30 yards on third-and-10 from the 20.
“I don’t know what else you could do as a cornerback,’’ Baker said. “You’re competing for balls like that. That’s all I can say. I’m still gonna compete every day.’’
Baker started the first two games of the season before being benched. He had been on the field for just three defensive snaps over the past four games, but was thrust into the lineup when rookie JuJu Brents suffered a quadriceps injury late in the second quarter.
He clearly didn’t agree with the calls.
“No sir, I do not agree with the penalties,’’ Baker said. “When those balls are uncatchable, usually they throw those flags out, especially when (the receiver is) initiating the contact. With a corner, you can put hands on too, as long as you’re not looking for the ball. I’m not impeding their force or anything.
“I don’t know what else I can do better than that.’’
Like everyone else at Lucas Oil Stadium late Sunday afternoon, linebacker Zaire Franklin thought the game was over, before it finally was over. He believed Speed had settled things.
“It’s a tough situation,’’ Franklin said, “but nothing we can do about it now. (The official) made the call.’’
Several of his teammates deflected the blame from Baker.
“I think you’ve got to let that slide,’’ insisted Kenny Moore II. “On the first one, I didn’t see much contact at all. Especially at the end of the game, you’ve got to let us play.
“But I told D.J. after the game, ‘This is what we sign up for.’ If we leave the game in the hands of the guys who control the game, we can’t expect them to make the right call every single time.’’
Added quarterback Gardner Minshew II: “We just have to support each other, man. We’re all out there doing our best. That’s the thing. Like nobody wants to mess up. Nobody wants to fumble, nobody wants to throw interceptions, I promise you that.
“We’re all working really, really hard at this, so we know he is too, and he’s going to be out there again, and we’re going to have a lot of confidence in him.’’
What can’t be glossed over: Baker’s late-game issues were the culmination of a game chockful of them for the Colts. There was:
*Minshew following up his four-turnover performance in the 37-20 loss at Jacksonville with four more: three fumbles and one interception. His eight turnovers in the span of eight days have led directly to 34 points.
“We’re already having conversations in the locker room just about trying to drill that and work that more,’’ Minshew said. “That’s not something I want to be a part of us and something that can’t be a part of our game.’’
It’s Minshew’s offense now that rookie Anthony Richardson faces season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. In his last two starts, he’s suffered four interceptions and lost four fumbles on sacks.
The margin for error post-Richardson is razor thin.
“We’re 3-0 when we win the turnover battle,’’ Shane Steichen said. “When we don’t, obviously, we’ve lost four.
“We got to be better taking care of the football.’’
This bears repeating — since 1984, the Colts are 5-55 when they have at least four turnovers.
*Myles Garrett single-handedly wrecking the game, which the Colts knew he was fully capable of doing.
“As advertised, for sure,’’ Minshew said. “Really good, man. Dude plays and he plays really hard.’’
A front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, Garrett had two sacks and forced a Minshew fumble on each. He whipped left tackle Bernhard Raimann on the first and it led to Hunt’s 2-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.
The second came with Minshew throwing out of his end zone on second-and-15 with 1:50 remaining in the first half and the Colts leading 21-17. He dismissed the block attempt of tight end Drew Ogletree and zipped past Blake Freeland before the rookie right tackle could respond. Tony Fields II recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-21 lead.
Garrett also vaulted over the Colts’ field-goal protection and batted down Matt Gay’s 60-yard attempt early in the second quarter. The Browns capitalized on the short field by getting a 44-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins.
*the Colts coming oh-so-close to prying three takeaways from the Browns. Booth reviews negated diving interceptions by Moore and DeForest Buckner. Baker’s illegal contact wiped out Speed’s sack and what would have been Buckner’s sealing recovery.
As it was, they intercepted starter Deshaun Watson and Walker. Walker, a former Colt, took over after Watson temporarily was sidelined to go through concussion protocol. Watson was cleared, but coach Kevin Stefanski stuck with Walker.
*the defense failing to seal the deal. After Michael Pittman Jr. gave the Colts a 38-33 lead with 5:38 remaining with a 75-yard catch-and-run, the Walker-led Browns faced a first-and-10 at their own 20 with 2:35 remaining.
Make a play or two, and it’s over, although there’s no denying the damage done by Cooper’s 30-yard reception versus Baker and Baker’s two penalties.
“As a defense, we’ve got to make those plays,’’ linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “We’ve got to play better.’’
The Colts piled up season highs in points (38) and total yards (456), and converted 7-of-15 third-down situations against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense.
They got 125 receiving yards and a 59-yard TD from rookie Josh Downs, Pittman’s 75-yard TD and 75 yards and one TD from Jonathan Taylor.
No matter. Four turnovers and crippling penalties tend to nullify that.
A non-call here, a non-call there. An interception that stands. Keeping Garrett from making several wrecking plays. Not allowing Jerome Ford to burst through the right side of the line on third-and-2 on the third play of the game and scooting 69 yards for a touchdown.
“We just didn’t do enough to get it done,’’ Pittman said. “We’ve got to figure out how to be better.”
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter/X at @mchappell51.