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The Colts Might Be Left Standing in the AFC’s Playoff Musical Chairs

Five AFC teams might finish 11-5. If so, Indianapolis would be the only one whose season ends in Week 17.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Entering Week 17, there are three teams in playoff contention who, even if they win, still need help from others to get in: the Colts, the Giants, and the Cowboys.

Two of these teams have sub-.500 records and play in the NFC East, a division that no one is trying to win, apparently. The third is Indianapolis, one of five 10-5 teams in the AFC and the only one outside the current playoff picture. The Colts need to beat the Jaguars in Week 17 to have a shot at getting into the postseason, but they also need one of the Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, or Titans to lose. If the Titans lose, the Colts will get into the playoffs by winning the AFC South. If any of those other teams lose, Indianapolis will get a wild-card bid. If none of those teams lose, the Colts would be the third team in NFL history to win 11 games and miss the playoffs, following in the footsteps of the 2008 Patriots and 1985 Broncos.

“It’s pretty crazy to think that a team with 11 wins is going to be sitting at the house,” Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said.

Crazier, still, that that could happen in a year when the playoff field has been expanded from 12 to 14 teams.

The Colts would not be in this position had they hung onto their 17-point lead in the third quarter of their Week 16 game against the Steelers. Their defense, ranked eighth by DVOA, was unable to adjust when Ben Roethlisberger started throwing downfield more often and more successfully than he had in recent weeks. Their offense, playing without starting offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith, couldn’t withstand the increased pressure from the Steelers’ pass rush, which sacked Philip Rivers five times in the game. The Colts would not be in this position if they had not lost in Week 1 to the Jaguars, who have not won a game since. In some senses, the Colts’ current predicament was easily avoidable.

It is still unusual. The Colts were 10-4 before losing to Pittsburgh; the last 101 teams to start 10-4 have made the playoffs. The Colts do not control their own destiny, yet still have a chance to win their division and be the no. 4 seed. It’s a range of outcomes wide enough to seemingly baffle Rivers.

“I have to believe that 11 is going to be enough,” Rivers said. “It’s only been one or two times ever that it’s not been. Obviously I know, I’m not denying that we don’t need help, but I think let’s control what we control. We certainly, I know I do, still have a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth from Week 1. So, find a way to get to 11-5 and go from there.”

It’s almost quaint to call a team unlucky in 2020, a season in which the competitive balance is regularly upended by COVID-19. The Steelers had two games moved this season and lost their normal bye week accommodating for other teams’ COVID-19 outbreaks. The 49ers have been prevented from practicing and playing in their home city. Kendall Hinton started a game at quarterback for the Broncos. We are many moons beyond it’s not fair.

The NFL wears its no-excuses culture unequivocally; missing the playoffs is always a failure (unless you’re the Jaguars). It won’t exactly be a travesty if the Colts end up being the odd team out when the music stops. But it also shouldn’t be an indictment of the team-building Indianapolis has done over the past few years. From Josh McDaniels’s 11th-hour decision to stay with the Patriots in 2018 to Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement last year, the Colts have been dealt some tough hands in recent years, yet they’ve navigated those events and built a roster good enough to win now with good coaching and quarterback play. They’ve gotten so many of their major decisions correct—it is simply too bad that their good work might not be rewarded with a trip to the playoffs.

The Colts’ biggest offseason move was signing Rivers, 39, to a one-year contract worth $25 million. It’s always dicey to take a swing on a quarterback of a certain age, especially one coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, but that decision looks good in hindsight. Rivers has had his characteristic flashes of poor play, but he’s won games for the Colts, including leading three game-winning drives. He’s eighth in the league in completion percentage (68.3 percent), ninth in yards (4,005), 19th in quarterback rating (64.3), and 13th in passer rating (98). He’s thrown 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, which would tie for the second-fewest picks he’s ever thrown in a season as a starting quarterback. He struggles most when pressured, but the Colts’ strong offensive line and quick passing game that relies heavily on running backs and tight ends have mitigated those issues. Rivers has played well enough that Indianapolis coach Frank Reich said recently that “if he wants, he has multiple years of good football ahead of him.”

The second-biggest offseason choice the Colts made was trading this year’s first-round draft pick, no. 13, to the 49ers for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, then signing Buckner to a four-year, $84 million extension. It was a big price to pay, both in draft capital and dollars, but it’s paid off so far—Buckner has 7.5 sacks and has been rated tied for fifth-best interior defender this season by Pro Football Focus. Despite giving up a first-rounder for Buckner, the Colts have had significant contributions from their rookie class this season. Running back Jonathan Taylor, whom Indianapolis took in the second round, has 1,214 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns so far this season. Since Week 11, he’s PFF’s third-highest-graded running back behind only Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones. Receiver Michael Pittman Jr., another second-round pick, has 475 receiving yards and has helped the Colts’ quick passing game significantly as a blocker. Getting those contributions from rookies in a season with limited practice time and a new quarterback was far from a given.

Whether those players will get their first postseason experience this year remains to be seen.

“We no longer control our own destiny,” Reich said. “But all we can do is take care of our own business.”

That’s the right thing to say. But really, if you look at it, the Colts have taken care of a lot of things already. It’s been over a year and a half since Luck stepped away, and almost three years since McDaniels backed out of the head-coaching job at the last moment. Switching coaches or quarterbacks under normal circumstances can be destabilizing events for teams; the Colts navigated both situations not by succumbing to the utter shock, but by effectively managing the situation and finding replacements that have made them a contender again. They are not in control of their own playoff chances, which is disappointing given the success they’ve had this season. If they don’t get the help they need in Week 17, it will be hard to look back on the 2020 season as much of an achievement. In some ways, that’s just a tough break. Even if the team isn’t rewarded with a postseason berth, a lot has gone right for the Colts this season.