The Indianapolis Colts lost to the New England Patriots 34-27 on Sunday Night Football. What did we learn from the game? Here are three takeaways (and we're using the team "learn" loosely):
Offense shows glimpses of hope
If you're looking for positives from Sunday night's game, I think one of the biggest ones is that, at times, it was the best offensive showing of the year. Andrew Luck returned to the field and completed 30 of 50 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, also rushing for 35 yards (8.8 yards per carry). Donte Moncrief caught six passes for 69 yards and a score, even forcing the Patriots to focus their coverage on him. T.Y. Hilton caught six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Frank Gore rushed for 78 yards on 13 carries, averaging six yards per rush. The Colts racked up 409 yards of total offense and didn't turn the football over. They snapped a streak of 21 games in a row not scoring on their opening possession. They led the Patriots at halftime. If we're looking for positives, one of the biggest ones was that the Colts showed the most life on offense that they've shown all season, besides for the fourth quarter of the Titans game. But it was inconsistent (particularly in the second half) and some of the same issues showed up again (see the next point), leaving the feeling that the offense isn't there yet. That was obvious, as the Colts scored only three touchdowns (and just six points in the second half, with 1:19 left in the game) - which won't be enough to beat the Patriots in very many games whatsoever. This unit is still very much a work in progress, but we saw glimpses of hope that perhaps they'll be able to put it all together at some point.
Same issues plague Colts... again
If you think back to Andrew Luck's first three starts of the season and then compare it to the team's game on Sunday night in week six, you would probably notice a lot of similarities - and that's because a lot of the issues were the same ones. The passing defense blew too many plays in coverage, especially early. It's much more understandable against Tom Brady, yeah, but they still didn't look too good. The team couldn't create much of a pass rush whatsoever. Andrew Luck did miss some passes once again, particularly in the second half. And the offensive line struggled mightily. Early in the game, they looked much better, and Luck was getting the ball out faster. But that didn't happen in the second half. As the Colts fell behind and the pressure mounted on Luck, he began to hold the football a bit longer, and while it's easy to blame him for that, the reality is this: the line needs to be able to protect Andrew Luck for a bit longer than simply for a quick dump off pass. For example, there was a 3rd and 7 play in which Luck was sacked, and he held on to the football a bit longer - but, if you want the team to develop a play downfield, you need to give him time. The line didn't do that in the second half. More hurtful, however, were the penalties that once again plagued this team. It's really getting ridiculous just how many holding penalties that this team commits. Simply put, the same issues are showing up over and over for the Colts. Penalties, poor play, mistakes, etc.
The biggest mismatch lies with the coaching staff
All of the moves that the Indianapolis Colts made this offseason were with one goal in mind: beating the Patriots. They improved their run defense after getting run over by the Patriots recently. They added a wide receiver in the draft after seeing their passing game shut down in the AFC Championship game. They added a running back to make their offense more than one-dimensional. Pretty much everything that the Colts did was with beating the Patriots in mind. And, to be honest, the Colts got closer. Prior to Sunday night, the closest the Colts had come to the Patriots in the Andrew Luck era was a 21 point loss, and on Sunday they lost by seven. It was closer, but I think we saw very clearly the biggest thing that is keeping this Colts team from seriously competing with the Patriots: the coaching staff. To be fair, Bill Belichick against any coach in the NFL is a mismatch, so that in and of itself isn't anything noteworthy. Belichick is an all-time great, so it's not a knock on Chuck Pagano to say that he was outcoached by Belichick. But the reality is that this staff is not equipped to compete with the adjustments or the gameplans of the Patriots' staff.
And this is coming after a game in which I thought there were positives to Chuck Pagano's calls - namely, his aggressiveness. He went for it on 4th and 1, leading to the Colts' first touchdown of the game. He kicked a surprise onside kick, and even though it didn't work out, that was coaching to win. If there's one area that Pagano has really improved at as a head coach, it's in this area. But then there was the fake punt call. And there were the second half adjustments that the Colts didn't make. On the field, the Colts were closer than many expected. But when it came to the coaching, the Colts were still totally outmatched, and I think it's clear that despite all of their efforts this offseason, perhaps the biggest gap between the Colts and the Patriots lies in the coaching staffs.