Colts know they don't measure up yet

November, 18, 2012
11/18/12
11:11
PM ET
Andrew LuckDavid Butler II/US PresswireDespite a subpar game from quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts are still in the playoff picture.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They didn't want to hear it and most of them certainly weren't going to say it.

But these Colts might have been due for this. As good a story as they've been, as wonderfully as Andrew Luck has played, as well as they've rallied behind Chuck Pagano, this is still a team with holes.

Take those holes on the road against Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and new addition Aqib Talib, and this is what you get, a 59-24 beat down. And it's fine. Not to apologize for them, but the Colts have plenty of room to endure a road loss to New England and still get to the playoffs.

Maybe the 7-3 Patriots are not what they used to be. But the Colts (6-4) are not what the Patriots are.

The company line, first served by interim coach Bruce Arians, was that it was a learning experience -- a bad learning experience, but a learning experience.

“We’ll make damn sure we remember it,” he said. “You don’t throw things away.”

It’s a reference point now.

“We’ll fight our tails off so we can come back here in January,” Arians said.

It was an ugly afternoon. The Colts actually gained 2 more net yards than the Patriots did, 448-446. Indianapolis converted 57 percent of its third downs. And Andrew Luck had his fifth 300-yard passing game, a rookie record.

It was all washed away because Luck turned the ball over four times, with three picks and a lost fumble. Two of the passes to the wrong team turned into 59- and 87-yard interception returns. The takeaways produced a total of 21 Patriots' points to go with a 68-yard Julian Edelman punt return touchdown.

Push it all into a pile and it’s a five-touchdown mountain the Colts weren’t going to climb.

I’m of the opinion that a rebuilding team that’s ahead of schedule doesn’t have to be embarrassed about getting boat-raced by the Patriots.

Mature rookie tight end Dwayne Allen concurred.

“No shame at all,” he said. “Before the game I said this game would be a measuring stick. That first half told us we are good enough to compete -- compete -- with a championship-winning team. The game in its entirety, told us that we’re not there yet. We’re not at a point where we can beat a championship-contending team.

“The best thing about that is we’ve got six weeks, six weeks to prove that not only can we make it to the playoffs but we can get better to the point we can beat those kinds of teams.”

The Colts have been the feel-good story of the NFL this season because of the way Pagano's team has responded to his battle with leukemia. It’s rare for a young team to have something so important to rally around.

In a less-than-stellar AFC, it became obvious in recent weeks there can be room for the Colts to qualify for the playoffs despite many (meaningless) preseason rankings that had them 32nd at the start of the season.

Even at 6-4, they are in a great spot. At worst the Colts go into Week 12 with a one-game lead on Cincinnati for the final spot in the field. Indianapolis still hosts Buffalo and Tennessee. The Colts still go to Detroit and Kansas City. The season finale is a game at Houston that may be meaningless to the Texans.

Heading home, the Colts don’t feel as if they’ve tumbled from some height with the failure against the Patriots. I don’t mean to suggest they quickly accepted it or enjoyed it. They didn’t. They were ticked. Luck was angry at himself over mistakes he knows he can’t make, mistakes that he knows how not to make.

When it was 38-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Colts looked poised to tack on another TD and keep some hope alive. From the New England 23-yard line, Luck threw for Reggie Wayne on the left, clearly thinking he was cutting in. Wayne cut out, and Alfonzo Dennard easily caught the pass and raced for a touchdown.

Luck raced to try to stop the score, diving for the cornerback’s ankles but failing to trip him up before sliding to a halt at about the 23-yard line. Face down, he slapped the ground once, twice, three times -- effectively counting the Colts out.

When’s the last time he was on a team that lost by five touchdowns?

“I’m sure some time in Pop Warner,” he said. “…You’d like to think that we’d have a chance to win if we could play them again, but they whipped our butts tonight. All the credit goes to them. They were the much better team tonight.”

The Patriots' 59 points tied a franchise record for points in a game.

Minus both players they intended to have as their starting corners at this point, the Colts weren’t as bad against receivers as they were against the Patriots tight end who causes matchup issues for virtually everyone. Gronkowski caught all seven balls Brady threw his way for 137 yards and two scores.

I don’t know what the Colts can do with the people they have like linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Antoine Bethea to slow Gronkowski down.

What will slow down now, at least for a week, is the hype that’s been building around the Colts.

“The media built us up and people tried to hop on that bandwagon and scream and tell us how good we are,” Allen said. “And we shut them out because we knew we weren’t as good as they were telling us we were. We knew we still had some things to improve in. That’s why we’ve got the rest of the season. To first prove we can get to the playoffs, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

As far as the potential for a return trip to New England that Arians mentioned, Allen wasn’t biting.

“We’ve got Buffalo next week,” he said. “That’s our total and complete focus. We’re off of the Patriots. We’re on Buffalo.”

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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