Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 14: AFC South slips away from Colts on two plays

Pinning an entire NFL loss on two plays can a shortsighted move — there are a multitude of moving parts on several hundred plays, and the butterfly effect of each moment ripples all the way to the final score. But the Indianapolis Colts , who ostensibly lost a chance at the postseason and an AFC South title, can pinpoint two specific plays for their loss.

Both of these plays were on offense, and both feature examples of what makes the Colts so frustrating — they are a team with a hyper-talented quarterback in Andrew Luck who frequently is left unprotected and put in bad spots.

To be fair, Luck didn’t have a good day Sunday. He looked off for almost the entire afternoon and finished 24 for 45 with 276 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Maybe it was relating to the shoulder injury he dealt with, but his throws were wildly inaccurate, and Luck didn’t look like the same quarterback who’s been so sharp even in rough situations this year.

Here are the two plays in question:

Play No. 1

Luck could’ve had a third touchdown but for a poor offensive gameplan late in the third quarter with the Colts on the Houston Texans ‘ 3-yard line and trailing 16-10. Facing a third-and-goal after Frank Gore was stuffed for a loss of one yard on the previous down, the Colts were obviously throwing the ball.

But despite Jadeveon Clowney having a monster game already, Indianapolis didn’t think it was necessary to use more than one guy to block the defensive end.

And they decided that guy should be tight end Dwayne Allen .

via NFL Game Rewind

The result was pretty predictable. Clowney blew past Allen, got into the pocket before Luck had time to really move through his progressions and mauled the Colts quarterback, who promptly fumbled the ball.

Protecting Luck there — even with just one lineman! — is probably the difference between getting six or three points and getting zero points.

Play No. 2

Not having points was a problem later, especially when time was running out on the Colts. Staring down a fourth-and-1 near midfield with the season on the line, the Colts obviously put the ball in Luck’s hands.

via NFL Game Rewind

Except they only gave him one option, a screen pass to Robert Turbin .

via NFL Game Rewind

If you look up top, you can see T.Y. Hilton streaking down the field. Not like he’s a guy you want to get the ball or anything.

The play was also odd because it was a little delayed. But eventually it developed, and a trio of Texans began quickly pursuing different players.

via NFL Game Rewind

So the end result of the Colts “our season is on the line” moment was the decision to only offer Luck a single passing option to the backup running back on a play where you purposely asked your linemen to let hefty defenders into the backfield more quickly.

And here’s what it looked like.

via NFL Game Rewind

Rob Chudzinski is a clever offensive coordinator. He’s good at what he does, and he’s been a positive influence on Luck this year. (We won’t get into him running Scott Tolzien at the goal line.) He and Luck have both had a slew of impressive games. But a screen here is blatantly either going to get absolutely snuffed out or go for huge yardage.

You’re putting everything — the division title, a chance at the playoffs — on Turbin breaking a couple tackles after catching a pass that Luck makes under duress.

There are just better options. A basic route, like a slant or curl, to Hilton, for example. Let your franchise player find his best playmaker and let them do what they’ve done best all year.

In a weird way, these two plays feel very much like the Colts season as a whole.

Here are four more takeaways from Sunday’s Week 14 action.

1. Should the Dallas Cowboys be worried?

I asked this question over on my playoff picture update, but it merits at least discussing whether or not Tony Romo is going to get a look from the Cowboys in the next few weeks. Continuing to bring up the topic is kind of dumb, but remember, Jerry Jones wants Romo to be ready to jump in and firmly believes at some point Romo is going to contribute to a playoff run.

No one’s losing faith in Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliot, but the last two games have not been good offensively for the Cowboys. Across the board their statistics are down, while they’ve had a spike in turnovers.

Here’s a look at the per game numbers using Thanksgiving as a split:

  Points First Downs Rush Yards Pass Yards Turnovers
Weeks 1-12 28.7 24.5 157.3 250.4 7
Weeks 13-14 12.0 12.5 124.0 138.0 5

The New York Giants are just two games back in the division after sweeping the season series. Sunday night’s loss in New York opened up the door for some odd playoff possibilities. If the Cowboys lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Giants beat the Detroit Lions next week, the Giants will be just a single game back with the tiebreaker in hand.

Dallas has a much better schedule, getting Tampa and Detroit at home before closing at Philadelphia. New York has a single home game left against the Lions this week before going to play at Philadelphia and Washington.

The Cowboys still have a 96 percent chance to win the division over at FiveThirtyEight. They’re a very good team with a bad 10-day stretch. They could bounce back and thump the Bucs by double digits (they opened as 7.5-point favorites according to Vegas Insider). But if things got wonky for another week, there might be some people in Dallas walking around looking like they sat on some lemons.

2. A suspension-worthy play

The decision by Aqib Talib to tell everyone that the next time he sees Harry Douglas he is going to “beat his ass” will likely be met poorly by people in authority. But he and Chris Harris absolutely have a reason to be angry at Douglas for the cheap shot he took in the Broncos-Titans game on Sunday.

During a run play where Harris was hardly involved in defending anything, Douglas dove at the corner’s knees and “blocked” him in a fashion that could have easily resulted in a major knee injury.

Harris wants Douglas to get fined for the move and he probably will. But, honestly, that’s not enough. That’s the sort of play that isn’t just dirty, it’s disrespectful to another human and to the game of football in general.

If Douglas blows out Harris’ knee, it changes the Denver Broncos ‘ season and it changes Harris’ career. It wasn’t an accident either — he dove straight at his knee.

The NFL is all about player safety, right? Well if that’s the case, the league absolutely needs to take a stance against players doing dirty things like this on the field. Hammer Douglas and give him a suspension, ensuring he won’t be doing it anymore. Take away his paycheck for a week and see if he goes after anyone else’s knees.

And in the process, the NFL would send a message to anyone wanting to cross the line of decency on the football field that potentially career-altering aggression won’t be tolerated.

3. Cardiac Cats

Man, the Detroit Lions are something else, aren’t they? A week ago Matthew Stafford and his merry band of misfit football players finally won their first game by more than a single score, leading many people to believe Detroit was getting right and prepared to really blow people out.

Hilarious. Stafford and the Lions found themselves trailing Matt Barkley and the Chicago Bears late in the game because that’s just apparently what they do — the Lions have now trailed in the fourth quarter in 12 of their 13 games.

The other thing they do? Come back from those deficits. Stafford pulled off another miraculous win, but this time it was him doing it with his legs on an impressive red-zone scamper for a touchdown.

That touchdown ultimately gave the Lions the win, as they kept the Bears from pulling off a subsequent scoring drive. And that meant another fourth-quarter comeback for Stafford, giving him a ridiculous eight on the season.

That’s the most since the merger in 1970, pushing him ahead of Peyton Manning in 2009.

QB Team Year 4Q Comebacks
Matthew Stafford Lions 2016 8
Peyton Manning Colts 2009 7
John Elway Broncos 1985 6
Peyton Manning Colts 1999 6

The wild part about that? Manning’s coach in 2009 was none other than Stafford’s current coach, Jim Caldwell.

Detroit moved into the No. 2 seed in the NFC with the win and is a fascinating case to examine.

For starters, the Lions are way too lucky to believe in. Twelve of their 13 games have involved fourth-quarter comebacks. That’s not sustainable.

But it’s easy to believe in Stafford, who’s matured into a viable MVP candidate under Jim Bob Cooter. It’s easy to believe in this no-name-ish defense under Teryl Austin, a unit playing much better the last month or so.

Two concerns are rather immediate, however. One, Stafford’s hurt.

That’s not an injury you just shrug off. The ace CBS broadcast team working the game noted that Stafford was basically operating as a Michael Jackson cover band and joked about his glove changes.

Stafford was probably trying to get comfortable, which isn’t easy to do with that sort of injury.

The other big concern for Detroit is the remaining schedule. The Lions get the Giants on the road, the Cowboys on the road and the Green Bay Packers at home. An 0-3 finish isn’t off the table for anyone dealing with that schedule, even a 9-4 team. If all those games are one-score affairs, Detroit did pretty well to finish the season, regardless of the outcome.

The point here is that 9-7 isn’t unreasonable with a banged-up quarterback. The Lions look like a lock for the division, but the Packers are just two games back and look like a heat-seeking missile. New York and Tampa are in great spots with their wild cards. If the Lions have taught us anything, they’re not going to blow out anybody for anything, especially a playoff spot.

4. The best back in football is …

I’ve been bouncing all over the place in terms of crowning the best back in football this year, initially believing it was Ezekiel Elliott for a lengthy stretch after he took it away from David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals . I tended to agree with colleague Sean Wagner-McGough’s assessment that Johnson is more valuable, though — he’s doing what Zeke’s doing except he’s more versatile and he’s doing it without the best line in football.

But it’s neither guy right now. Instead, it’s Le’Veon Bell .

Bell, who was injured in 2015 and suspended three games to start the season, isn’t going to beat Elliott for the rushing title. Three games is too much to overcome. But his 236 rushing yards on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills , a single-game record for the Pittsburgh Steelers , is really just part of the equation. Bell also recorded 62 receiving yards, giving him a stupid 298 yards from scrimmage for the game. He had 23 more yards than the Bills.

You think he cares about snow when it comes to making that signature jump-cut?

The running back became the second player in NFL history with at least 225 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and 50 receiving yards in a single game since Jim Brown did it in 1961. Decent company.

Dude can do it all, too: go horizontal, go vertical, show burst, catch the football. Whatever.

His effort also pushed him to 1,616 total yards from scrimmage for the season, an absolutely dominant 10-game stretch of football where Bell posted the second-highest yards from scrimmage total in a player’s first 10 games since Brown in 1963. Brown had 1,704; again, ridiculous.

So that means Bell’s averaging 161.6 yards from scrimmage per game for the season. Over the course of a 13-game season, which is all he’ll get to play, that would give Bell 1,939 yards from scrimmage. He has a legitimate shot at reaching 2,000 yards from scrimmage after missing the first three games of the season.

If he played the entire year? Bell would be on pace for 2,585 yards from scrimmage. Chris Johnson holds the record (2,509) and is the only man to pass 2,500, doing so during his ridiculous 2009 season.

Bell, by the way, also holds the record for most yards from scrimmage per game (128.5) for a career now.

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