I'm not sure where the Indianapolis Colts file this one.
It's too late in the season to blame the Colts' 29-17 loss Sunday at Houston on Bruce Arians being thrust into the head coaching job by tragic circumstances. He's nearly three months on the job.
Yet what was he thinking A) Giving the ball at the goal line to Mewelde Moore, who was sitting on a couch last Sunday; B) ruining a tremendous Pat McAfee punt with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty; and C) punting late and calling illogical timeouts like Jim Caldwell?
It's too late in the season to blame youth and inexperience because the young are no longer inexperienced. Yet what was rookie Dwayne Allen thinking on punt protection when he let Bryan Braman slide by to reach McAfee, block the punt and score?
It's too hard-hearted to slam Moore for fumbling the ball on the one-yard line, considering he's been idle so long and shouldn't have been put in that position. But did he have to compound it with a later special-teams penalty?
Houston (12-2) clinched the AFC South title with its win. The Colts (9-5) go on to next week's road game at Kansas City needing a win over the reeling Chiefs to clinch a wildcard berth.
If you want to look at the bright spots, here are two easy ones from my viewpoint on my couch miles from Houston: Vick Ballard reached a career-best 105 yards rushing and Andrew Luck lasted a road game without a turnover (13 of 27, 186 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) despite being sacked five times. Luck will see J.J. Watt (19.5 season sacks and counting) in his nightmares.
Small positives aside, this marked only the second time the Colts have beaten themselves this season.
The first giveaway was the 80-yard Blaine Gabbert pass to Cecil Shorts III in the Jacksonville game. While the Jaguars are awful, and that loss looks worse with each passing week, this loss hits harder.
The Colts had more than enough opportunities to beat Houston on the road, clinch a playoff berth and keep the division race alive. They failed to take advantage.
They underachieved for the first time in the Luck era.
Houston tried to let them in the game with conservative play calls, thuggish penalties and general lack of killer instinct on offense much of the day.
It's hard to say, as the Colts look back with anguish, what will be the most frustrating mistake in retrospect. The two obvious ones are Moore's fumble at the 1-yard line and Allen allowing a blocked punt touchdown on special teams. That's 14 points worth.
Ultimately, Allen's miscue will be labeled what it was – a missed block. Those happen to everyone over the course of the season. He should learn from it and not make that mistake twice.
The other big problems fall on Arians' shoulders. He accepted blame for the unsportsmanlike conduct miscue. Not surprising. He has been an upfront interim coach since the absence of Chuck Pagano due to leukemia treatment.
While I've never been wrong second-guessing anything in sports, there is no explanation for Arians using Moore on the 1-yard line, a play that resulted in a fumble. Ballard should have been in the game to run it, or Luck should have snuck it. Ballard was on the sideline. If he was hurt, fine. If not – and he returned in fine shape soon after – he should have been in for that play.
One of Moore's issues when he was cut by the Colts in late October was inconsistency in catching the ball and general lack of solid control of the ball. So why trust him in such a crucial spot?
As for Arians' unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the result gave Houston the ball in Colts' territory early in the fourth quarter, and the Texans came away with a field goal and a nine-point lead.
With 4:58 left and the Colts needing two scores, Arians chose to punt on 4th-and-20. Yes, the Colts were in their own territory. But time was wasting away. And it was further wasted after that. The Colts saved their timeouts too long on the Texans' subsequent possession.
This version of the Colts looked like a rebuilding franchise with inexperienced players and coaches. Before the game, I would have said a 12-point loss sounded about right. In fact, I picked a 10-point loss for the Colts. Yet the way this one unfolded, it felt worse than that.
It felt like the Colts took a small step backward in confidence and execution. All of the “magic” of this season seemed a distant memory in the most pivotal moments.
Where do the Colts file this one?
If they can file it under “aberration,” we can still have a happy ending. A trip to Kansas City can probably cure a few ills.