CINCINNATI – Desperate NFL teams complain about officiating and lament “What if?” The stumbling, but playoff-bound Colts aren't complaining. So that's a good sign.
They have every right to whine. The reversed call on a fourth-down stop of Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis might not have changed the outcome of the Bengals' 42-28 win over the Colts on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. But it might have.
Cincinnati's halftime lead doubled from 7-0 to 14-0 when referee Jeff Triplette reversed the call and gave Green-Ellis a touchdown after initially ruling he was touched before bouncing off the ground into the end zone.
The replay showed Colts nose tackle Josh Chapman tripped Green-Ellis, causing him to stumble and come up short of the goal line. At the very least, it was inconclusive enough to make reversing the call unlikely. Yet they did. And the game was altered.
“When we reviewed the video at the goal line, there was nobody touching him there, and then he bounced into the end zone,” Triplette told the pool reporter.
Chapman disagreed, and rightfully so, but didn't dwell on it.
“Yeah, I got his foot but you have to make plays,” Chapman said. “You can't let them get down there. I got his foot when I came through the gap, but the call's the call. The thing is, you have to line up and play again. It's a 60-minute ballgame and you still have to make plays and handle the situation.”
Here's the situation, and it's not all bad: The Colts (8-5) clinched, for lack of a less-forceful word, the AFC South title a few hours after the game when the Tennessee Titans lost to the Denver Broncos. So there will be a second season for the Colts. There are no guarantees it will last long, however.
“You never like to backdoor your way into the playoffs,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said, “but I'm not going to sneeze at a division title. You have to get it and go from there.”
Playoff berths aside, a possible No.3 seed evaporated with the loss at Cincinnati.
The Colts fell behind – what else is new? – 21-0 early in the third quarter before finding some new weapons and briefly making a game of it. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns – two apiece to Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill, who may have emerged as the threats to complement T.Y. Hilton.
Concerns about the offense remain, but the play of Rogers and Brazill offered hope for the first time since Reggie Wayne went down with a season-ending injury.
Rogers showed excellent acceleration upon taking a slant pass 69 yards for a score. Brazill broke more tackles on his 19-yard touchdown reception than running back Trent Richardson has all season. (That's exaggeration for literary effect. Or maybe not.)
Concerns about the defense remain, and show no signs of dissipating. The Colts allowed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to throw for 275 yards and three scores, they gave up 147 yards rushing to the two-headed monster (Giovani Bernard 99 yards, Green-Ellis 48) and they generated little pass rush.
When the Colts closed the margin to 21-14, the defense couldn't sustain the momentum.
The Colts gave up a 21-yard Dalton pass to Bernard, exasperated by safety LaRon Landry ripping off Bernard's helmet for a penalty and a 1st-and-goal at the Colts' 6. The next series featured an even worse penalty. This time inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard stopped Marvin Jones for a three-yard loss. He capped that with a taunting penalty and Cincinnati proceeded to march down for a 35-14 lead.
In the last three Colts losses, opponents have scored 38, 40 and 42 points. So Colts defensive players might want to go easy on the taunting.
“We didn't get off the field on third down, gave up some big holes and we didn't capitalize on plays we're supposed to make,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said.
Just like the Colts don't whine about calls, they don't sugarcoat their problems.
This team has multiple issues, due to injuries to the offense and lack of productivity on defense. They'll likely be the No.4 seed when the playoffs start, with only one home game. That game will likely be against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We have to execute, man, some of that stuff was on us,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. “We've got to execute a lot better as a team. Knowing what to do is one thing, but playing as team, we've got to be able to make it work.”
Good news is on the horizon with the dysfunctional Houston Texans coming to town next Sunday. The Colts then play at Kansas City (a playoff preview of sorts) before closing out the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Two of the next three games are games the Colts should win, in the comfortable climate of Lucas Oil Stadium. Maybe they've found a little more offensive spark with Rogers and Brazill. Maybe now that that they've slipped into the playoffs they can take advantage of flying under the radar.
OK, flying under the radar isn't the right phrase. Limping under the radar is more like it. But at least there's no whining.