Colts win AFC South despite their flaws

Andrew Luck and the Colts have struggled against teams with a winning record recently. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- The Indianapolis Colts probably did a lot of score-checking on their phones as they made the 115-mile bus ride back home from Cincinnati.

They were about 30 minutes outside of Indianapolis when Peyton Manning, of all people, helped his former team win its first AFC South title in three years when the Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans.

Winning the division deserves some handshakes and hugs when you think about all the injuries the Colts have dealt with on offense this season and that they were 2-14 two years ago. But there's some legitimate concern, too, after they needed help to wrap up the division.

The Colts went into Sunday's game against the Bengals wanting to take care of things on their own. They left Paul Brown Stadium after a 42-28 loss without easing any of the doubts about how the rest of the season could go for them.

“We wanted to win the game,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “Like we said before, if we took care of our business, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody losing or anything of that nature. We want to go into December, into the playoffs on a hot roll.”

As important as it was for the Colts to beat the Bengals so that they could say they won the division on their own, it was even more important for them from the standpoint of proving they can beat a team with a winning record. The loss dropped Indianapolis to the No. 4 seed, a game behind the Bengals for the third seed.

The Colts are 3-3 in their past six games, with all three victories coming against teams with losing records -- all teams from the AFC South, the worst division in football.

Indianapolis hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record since knocking off Manning and the Broncos on Oct. 20. They were still considered a threat in the AFC when they went into that game seven weeks ago.

Not anymore.

They have too many flaws and not enough talent to make the same type of run they made in 2006. They’re wobbling toward the playoffs and look to be a one-and-done team when they get there.

“We try to measure ourselves every week,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We’ll go back to work, and we’ll grind. We’ve got a resilient bunch, a tough-minded group. They don’t ever quit. They’re hurting right now, everybody is.”

So much was talked about referee Jeff Triplette's reversal on the Colts’ fourth-and-goal stop of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis at the 1-yard line, giving the Bengals a 14-0 lead with 74 seconds left in the first half.

Was it a bad call by Triplette? Yes.

Would the Colts have won the game if the call had not been reversed? No.

The Colts continued their trend of slow starts -- outscored 114-24 in the first half of the past six games -- but the defense couldn't come up with the necessary stops to get the offense back on the field.

The bend-but-don’t-break defense the Colts played earlier this season continues to break. Don’t be fooled by the four turnovers they forced against Tennessee on Dec. 1. The Titans aren’t in the same class as the Bengals or the Arizona Cardinals.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had all day to sit back in the pocket because the Colts barely got any pressure on him. Dalton threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns. Cincinnati also did what the Colts have wanted to do for weeks -- run the ball. They averaged 4.4 yards and rushed for 155 yards while going 6-of-12 on third down.

“We had our chances but didn’t capitalize,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “At the end of the day, they made more plays than us. They caught all the deep passes, they had some good calls go their way. That’s pretty much how the game turned out. We have to find ways to get off the field on third down.”

Quarterback Andrew Luck found a couple of receivers to throw the ball to in Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill, but it won't matter the rest of the season if the defense can't stop anybody. The Colts have given up an average of 31 points and 401 yards per game and allowed opponents to convert 44 percent of their third-down opportunities in the past seven games.

“Back to the drawing board for us,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “It’s a work in progress. Everybody has a job to do, and we have to get it done.”