INDIANAPOLIS – There’s every reason to believe Tom Brady would have found a way. He’s that good. Even at 44.
There’s every chance the Buccaneers would have found a way. Ten months ago, they were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa, and Sunday they brought a 7-3 record into Lucas Oil Stadium.
But it was a virtual guarantee Brady and the Bucs were going to enjoy the plane ride home after being involved in a ballgame that saw the other team insist on offering a helping hand at every turn.
In the Indianapolis Colts’ blowout win at Buffalo seven days ago, coach Frank Reich’s post-game address to the team included counting out Jonathan Taylor’s club-record five touchdowns.
Sunday, the Bucs could have used the same refrain following their entertaining 38-31 victory.
How many turnovers did we get? One, two, three, four, five!
There were several interesting storylines that’ll be played out in the next few days:
1. The Colts’ season leveling off at 6-6 despite holding a 24-14 halftime lead. But again, they couldn’t finish. They lost a double-digit lead for a third time this season, all against top-tier teams: the Bucs and Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil, and the Ravens in Baltimore.
They’re this close to being one of the AFC’s top seeds instead of a team with a ton of work still ahead of it.
“You hate to walk in the locker room feeling good early on, then walking away with a loss,’’ Carson Wentz said.
Believe it or not, the Colts have built a double-digit lead in nine straight games.
2. In something of a statistical anomaly that certainly will fuel talk radio and feed critics near and far, the Colts had a stretch during which Wentz dropped back to pass 26 straight times. That was with Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s leading rusher, available and usually lined up alongside him in the backfield.
“I didn’t know that,’’ Wentz admitted. “I didn’t realize it was that many.’’
Reich defended the pass-heavy – OK, pass-only – approach.
The Colts attempted to establish Taylor early, but were going against the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. In the first half, Taylor had 25 yards on eight attempts. That’s 3.1 per carry.
“We weren’t getting anything,’’ Reich said, adding the run game was “just out of sync. We couldn’t get one run to hit in the first quarter.’’
On occasion, an RPO (run-pass option) was called, but Wentz opted for a pass after seeing the Bucs’ defensive alignment.
“They came out ready to stop the run,’’ he said. “They were loading the box, giving us some different looks.’’
Incredibly, Taylor went nearly 26 minutes of actual game time between carries. His first rushing attempt in the second half came at the 10:06 mark of the fourth quarter. It was the first of eight carries on a 10-play drive that ended with him producing a 4-yard touchdown and a 31-31 deadlock.
He finished with 83 yards and one TD on 16 carries.
3. After an ineffective first quarter – four possessions, 11 plays, 19 yards, zero first downs – the offense got hummin’. In the second quarter, Wentz was 13-of-18 for 176 yards and touchdowns to Ashton Dulin (62 yards on a beauty of a post route), Jack Doyle (15) and T.Y. Hilton (4).
“We were rollin’,’’ Reich said. “We scored 21 points.’’
But every storyline was obliterated by a bottom line that seldom lies.
One of the NFL’s best teams at taking care of the football chose a very bad time to little the field with turnovers.
One, two, three, four, five.
That after suffering just 10 turnovers in the first 11 games and none in the last three.
“Just too many mistakes in the second half to beat a good football team,’’ Reich said. “Very frustrating when you’re going up against that good of a team and you’ve really got a chance I feel if we don’t beat ourselves.’’
Again, Brady and the Bucs might have exited Lucas Oil Stadium with a victory even without the assistance. They’re among the NFL’s best. Brady finished with 226 yards and one TD. The Bucs had 359 total yards and scored on six of their final eight drives, excluding a kneel-down to end the first half.
But there’s no better barometer for wins and losses than the giveaway/takeaway battle.
The Colts entered the afternoon as a league-best plus-15.
Sunday, they were a minus-3 and, more damning, the Bucs outscored them 24-7 following turnovers.
Tampa Bay capitalized on the first three – fumbles by Zach Pascal and Wentz on a strip/sack by Shaq Barrett, and a Wentz interception – with touchdowns. After Nyheim Hines’ muffed punt gave the Bucs possession at the Indy 19, the defense limited the damage to Ryan Succop’s 25-yard field goal.
“You can’t beat yourself,’’ said Taylor, “especially against the defending world champs. If you’re not even playing good football – clean, disciplined football – you already put yourself in a hole.’’
“We always say we’ve got to protect the football, first and foremost,’’ Wentz said. “And against good teams no doubt the room for error is small.
“I don’t know how many turnovers they had, if any.”
Two: another punch-out by Darius Leonard, this time against Chris Godwin, and Isaiah Rodgers’ interception of Brady.
“I think we had five,’’ Wentz said. “We can’t do that. You’re not going to win many games when you turn it over five times.’’
He’s spot on.
Since 1984, the Colts are 2-21 when they’ve suffered five turnovers in a game. Sunday marked the first time they scored 31 points with five turnovers. That’s how prolific the offense was, minus the turnovers of course.
“Two good teams, playing back and forth,’’ Doyle said. “Offensively we just turned the ball over too much. Too many mistakes. Just each of us taking our turn.’’
As crippling as each turnover was, the absolute killer came on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The Colts led 24-14 at the half and were driving for a fatter cushion. Wentz’s 15-yard hookup with rookie tight end Kylen Granson produced a first-and-10 at the Tampa 20. Then, disaster.
Barrett beat left tackle Eric Fisher, pounced on Wentz from behind and forced and recovered the fumble. Six plays and 65 yards later, Leonard Fournette powered in for a 4-yard TD.
Consider it a 10-point swing.
On the ensuing possession, Wentz suffered his first interception when he underthrew Michael Pittman Jr. and Antoine Winfield Jr. went over Pittman for the takeaway. Seven plays later, the Bucs had their first lead of the game at 28-24 on Ronald Jones II’s 1-yard TD.
“Ultimately when you make that many mistakes against a good football team,’’ Reich said, “it’s going to come back to haunt you.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.