The Indianapolis Colts lost to the Carolina Panthers 29-26 in overtime on Monday. What did we learn from the game? Here are three takeaways (and we're using the team "learn" loosely):
Andrew Luck's struggles are glaring and confusing
Andrew Luck has not had a good season. He has struggled often, and for much of the Panthers game, it was as glaring as it has ever been. At the time he badly overthrew T.Y. Hilton for an interception with 12:20 left in the game, Luck's passer rating was at one. That's not a typo, either. It was at one. Through three-plus quarters, Luck had completed just five passes (on 16 attempts) for just 34 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. It was as bad as he has ever played. There were forced decisions, overthrows, and wide open receivers missed. I'm not sure I can say it enough: he was really, really bad. For the rest of the game, though, Luck completed 18 of 29 passes (excluding two spikes) for 197 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception, for a passer rating of 90.7. He led the Colts to 20 unanswered points and nearly pulled out a win, but was - fittingly - picked off in overtime by Luke Kuechly, who had dropped a would-be game-winning pick earlier. The success later in the game just makes it even more confusing as to why Luck struggled so much early on. Everyone likes to pick just one thing and camp on that, but I think it's a combination of several things that are contributing to Luck's struggles (I'll look at this more in-depth this week too after going back over the film). The discussion has to start, however, with Luck himself and not with any external factors. Luck is making poor decisions, not looking as confident, and seems just, well, off. The first interception that he threw, when he was rolling to the left, found no one open, and then decided to force the football anyway had nothing to do with injury or playcalling or anything like that - it was just a stupid decision. I don't know if we can get much deeper into this without knowing what Luck is thinking, but he's making poor decisions.
Added to that, however, seem to be several other factors. It certainly looks like he's playing with an injury, as some passes seem totally aimed with more effort than should normally be involved. The playcalling can certainly stand to be better, as the Colts should utilize more of the hurry-up concepts that they did late in the fourth quarter that worked. The wide receivers have struggled to get open, which gives Luck less to work with. The offensive line, though much improved recently, will still allow some hits, which could be adding up after three-plus years of hits and now a possible injury. Furthermore, Luck might be feeling the weight of having to carry this team, with questions about the defense and rumors swirling about the coaching and front office situation - the pressure shifts solely to Luck to perform. All of those things can be contributing to Luck's struggles - understand that it doesn't have to be just one thing. But if we're starting this discussion anywhere, it needs to be with Luck himself, because he hasn't played well and it was at its worst on Monday night.
Special teams steps up - again
If you had to rank the Colts' MVPs through eight games so far, there's a real possibility that Pat McAfee would be number one and Adam Vinatieri would be number two. The league's best kicking duo has lived up to that designation again this year, as both have played very well and did so again on Monday night. McAfee punted six times and averaged 48.7 yards per punt, pinning two inside the 20 (with two touchbacks) and also making a tackle as the coverage unit let Ted Ginn get by them, only to have McAfee shove him out of bounds. McAfee so consistently helps the Colts win the field position battle that it's a huge advantage. In fact, of the Panthers' six scores on Monday night, only one of them came after a McAfee punt, and that was after he punted out of his own end zone and Ginn had the 18 yard return. Other than that, the Panthers couldn't get much done with the Colts flipping the field position battle on punts. Adam Vinatieri was also fantastic, as in rainy, sloppy conditions he hit all four of his field goal tries: from 47, 34, 24 (to send it to overtime), and 50 yards (to give the Colts the lead in overtime). Considering the weather conditions, that's big-time from Vintatieri, who was great on Monday night once again. Adding to the special teams contributions was the play of Quan Bray, who averaged 31.8 yards per kick return (on four returns) in his NFL debut, giving the Colts a spark - particularly with a 45-yard return to start overtime.
Slow starts continue to doom Colts
It has become commonplace by now: the Colts start slowly, make it look like the game is over, and then frantically and furiously try to claw their way back into it, though most often it's too late. The Colts have trailed at halftime in five of their eight games this year, only coming back to win one of them (their overtime victory against the Jaguars). They have trailed by two scores at the half in three different games, also being shut out in three games at the half. The numbers get even worse when looking at the Colts when entering the fourth quarter, as they have had the lead in just one of eight games entering the fourth quarter this year (the lone game being their win against the Texans). In five different games, they have entered the final period trailing by two or more scores. That's not a recipe for success, and yet the Colts continue to come out slow week after week, only to try to make it competitive and interesting at the end of the game. They almost did on Monday, but you can't help but think that, had they played that way any earlier in the game, they likely would have won. Whether it's motivation, coaching, or something else, I don't know, but the bottom line is that the Colts under Chuck Pagano have routinely started slow, and it's been a constant issue this year once again. The Colts need to stop coming back but instead actually play football in the first three quarters as well. Until they start doing that, they won't be able to reach their lofty goals and expectations.