With everything in their hands, Colts let it slip away vs Steelers

Colts

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) celebrates in the end zone in front of Indianapolis Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) after making a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

INDIANAPOLIS – They had a complete control of everything. Absolutely everything.

The offense was hummin’ behind a crisp mix of Philip Rivers’ 39-year old right arm (181 yards, a 42-yard TD to Zach Pascal) and Jonathan Taylor’s powerful 21-year old legs (74 yards and two TDs on 16 carries). The defense was making Ben Roethlisberger look every bit the beleaguered 38-year old QB1 he’s been the last month, and his running game again was a non-factor.

With a tad more 24 minutes remaining Sunday at Heinz Field, it was all about control.

Indianapolis Colts 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 7.

“If you could have been in the stadium, there was a feeling of complete domination in the first half. All three phases,’’ Rivers said on a post-game Zoom conference call. “It was like, ‘Y’all don’t have an answer and we’re not going to give you an answer.’’’

He paused and shook his head.

The Colts’ control – of the game, of their own playoff hopes – was short-lived.

Steelers 28, Colts 24.

“In the second half we gave them a glimmer of hope and then it felt a little bit like we were hanging on, you know?’’ Rivers said. “It had that feeling a little bit like we were hanging on to protect something rather than just to continue to go and attack.’’

From dominant and confident to overwhelmed and desperate for help in the span of a quarter and a half. The Colts lost a 17-point lead for the first time since week 5 of that very forgettable 2011 season – ironically they led Kansas City 24-7 in the third quarter only to lose 28-24 – and the Steelers overcame a 17-point second half deficit for the first time in Mike Tomlin’s 14-year career as Pittsburgh’s head coach.

Instead of winning for just the second time in the last half-century in Pittsburgh, the Colts left town 2-16 in the Steel City.

“It’s tough,’’ Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly said. “The mood swing on the sideline was definitely felt.’’

With so much on line – a win over the Steelers and next week against Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium would guarantee a postseason appearance – the Colts were unable to maintain their impressive start.

“In the second half,’’ Frank Reich said, “we just didn’t have any answers.’’

So now what? Atone for the week 1 loss at Jacksonville with next Sunday’s rematch – “Our redemption game,’’ Kelly said – and hope.

Hope to get some help in the form of a Baltimore loss at Cincinnati or a Miami loss at Buffalo or a Cleveland loss at home to Pittsburgh.

Hope to get help from somebody.

Hope they don’t join the 2008 New England Patriots and 1985 Denver Broncos as the only teams to finish 11-5 since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 – again, that requires a closing win over the 1-14 Jaguars – and fail to make the postseason.

“You think about the scenarios, what could happen,’’ admitted linebacker Darius Leonard. “It’s pretty crazy to think a team with 11 wins is gonna be sitting at the house.

“Hopefully we do what we do and we can do to find a way to get in. Hopefully we can get in and make some damage.’’

Reich reserved a few minutes of his post-game address to the team for perspective.

“What we just talked about is we no longer control our own destiny,’’ he said. “All we can do is take care of our own business and that means learn from this film, having a good week of practice and finishing up the regular season with a great performance and then hopefully we get some help.’’

Kelly considered what might have been but had to come back to the reality of the situation. As it now stands, the Colts are 10-5 and the No. 8 seed in a congested AFC playoff race. Only seven get in.

“That’s kind of the way the NFL rolls,’’ Kelly said. “It’s a very unpredictable league. Going into the game I think we can control our own destiny with a win.

“After the first half, I think everybody thought that was going to be a for-sure thing that’s going to happen. I think we just took our foot off the gas in the second half.’’

That’s the predicament the Colts put themselves in by getting nothing done offensively after the 24-7 lead and defensively allowing Roethlisberger to regain his form in a 244-yard, three-TD second half.

The Colts opened the third quarter with a 10-play, 65-yard drive that reached a third-and-3 at the Steelers 7. But Rivers’ protection failed him again – he suffered a season-high five sacks after going down just 14 times in the previous 14 games – and Stephon Tuitt got for an 8-yard loss. That forced rookie Rodrigo Blankenship to convert a 28-yard field goal.

That made it 24-7 at the 9:25 mark of the period, but that was the beginning of the end.

The Colts’ final five possessions consisted of 35 plays that netted 88 total yards. They punted three times, Rivers delivered a pass into coverage that Mike Hilton intercepted and the final drive died at the Steelers 33 with three incompletions. The Colts were without starting tackles Anthony Castonzo (knee/ankle) and Braden Smith (COVID-19 list), and it was noticeable, especially with backup right tackle Chaz Green.

The defense, meanwhile, limited Pittsburgh to 93 total yards – just 4 on seven rush attempts – and the only Steelers’ points came after T.J. Watt forced a Rivers’ fumble and Hilton’s return gave them a first-and-goal at the 3. But the second half, it had no answers.

Roethlisberger was 23-of-29 for 244 yards and TDs to Diontae Johnson, former Colt Eric Ebron and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The running game still went nowhere – 20 yards on 14 carries – but the Colts aided the comeback with four defensive penalties (one each by Kenny Moore II and T.J. Carrie, two on Xavier Rhodes).

“You’ve got a future Hall of Fame quarterback over there and he got hot,’’ Reich said. “They had the momentum. He kept finding completions and keeping drives alive.’’

So the Colts have to win next Sunday. And hope.

“I feel very confident in how we’ll respond,’’ Reich said. “That’s what we talked about in there for just a  minute was, ‘Hey, very disappointed in what happened today from all of us when we had everything to play for . . .’

“We had a bad half and we weren’t able to finish it off. We’ve got to learn from it, get better next week and take care of our business next week and finish the season off in the right way and hopefully get some help.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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