The Indianapolis Colts' luck unofficially ran out Sunday, as the first phase of the Andrew Luck era wound to a close.
As Luck watched a courageous effort by 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, the Houston Texans temporarily changed the face of the AFC South by beating the Colts 16-10 in Lucas Oil Stadium, ending a 13-game home winning streak against the Texans. Luck was inactive as he continues to recover from a kidney injury. As a team, the Colts looked like a Indy 500 car that ran out of gas 20 laps from the finish. They let Brandon Weeden and the Texans overcome a 10-0 deficit after Texans lost fill-in starter T.J. Yates to a torn ACL.
That's right, Brandon Weeden -- the same guy who started the downfall of the Dallas Cowboys' playoff hopes after Tony Romo's first collarbone break. The Colts aren't officially eliminated from the AFC South, but the Texans need only one more win to knock Indy out of the postseason.
The Colts were lucky to lose enough games to be in position to draft Luck, considered the best young quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, who spent 14 seasons in Indy. During Luck's first four years, the Colts were good, but they weren't good enough to ever truly contend for a Super Bowl.
Franchises fortunate enough to land a QB as talented as Luck usually have a window of five or six years of contention before falling off. The Atlanta Falcons made the playoffs the first five seasons with Matt Ryan. Same with the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco, whose run included a Super Bowl win. The Colts made the postseason in 12 of Manning's first 14 seasons, winning one title and playing for a second.
Indianapolis entered this season as one of the top Super Bowl favorites, but instead of competing for a title, the Colts are likely to see their playoff streak snapped at three.
"This makes it tougher because we know that clock is winding, that play-time clock is going," Colts safety Mike Adams said. "You only get so many chances. This is one of our chances. We didn't let it slip away, but it is out of our hands now. We kinda let it slip away. There is nothing we can do but keep grinding and keep playing."
For the first time since the Luck draft in 2012, the Colts don't control their own destiny. It can be argued no franchise has been as lucky as the Colts over the past few seasons. Not only did they get the benefit of drafting Luck to follow Manning, but they have also played in an awful division, which elevated them into playoff contention every season.
Luck was 16-2 in AFC South play during his first three season. To make the playoffs and win the division, the Colts had to be only slightly better than .500 in their remaining games. They went 17-13, and punched their postseason ticket each year.
They lost in the wild-card round in 2012, beat Kansas City to advance to the divisional round in 2013 and played the New England Patriots for last year's AFC title, where they got blown out 45-7.
"It's been a whirl-wind," tight end Coby Fleener said. "It's been faster than I anticipated looking back. Now is not a time to reminisce. While we don't have control ultimately of our destiny, we still have some control. We had been progressively getting better during the first three years. You could see guys building momentum."
What the Colts are going to find out is that the NFL landscape has changed since 2011. The collective bargaining of that year altered the way teams are able to maintain success. It's harder to sign draft choices to second contracts. Even though the salary cap grows more than $10 million every year, salaries have escalated to a point that Pro Bowl-caliber players could cost between $6-16 million per year to retain, depending on their position.
For the first since Manning's departure, the Colts will have to deal with paying $22 million or more to keep their QB. In the pre-2011 days, franchises with elite quarterbacks rarely finished worse than 8-8. This year, the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Ravens are just a few of the teams with elite quarterbacks and losing records.
Even though it's a quarterback-driven league, elite QBs on declining rosters don't necessarily win in today's NFL.
The Colts face more problems than most teams in similar situations. Here's why:
The AFC South is expected to improve at a rapid pace in the next couple of years. The Texans have been somewhat of a force since Bill O'Brien took over as head coach. He went 9-7 last year with Ryan Fitzpatrick. They are a win away from winning the division under Brian Hoyer (and backups Yates and Weeden). The Texans plan to get a quarterback out of next year's draft, and if they get the right one, that is bad news for the Colts.
The Jaguars' Blake Bortles and the Titans' Marcus Mariota look to be among the better young quarterbacks in the league. Their continued improvement should end the 6-0 divisional records the Colts used to make the last three trips to the playoffs.
The Colts have numerous problems that could pull them down. Sure, they will have Luck, but a coaching change is expected to be on the horizon, as Chuck Pagano is in the final year of his contract. General manager Ryan Grigson's standing with the team is also under review.
If that isn't bad enough, this roster appears to have aged quickly. Adams is 34. Running back Frank Gore is 32. Wide receiver Andre Johnson is 34. Linebacker Robert Mathis is 34. Linebacker Trent Cole is 33. Linebacker Erik Walden is 30. Grigson has had the luxury to dabble in free agency because Luck was making $7.6 million per year. The QB could make three times that in an extension.
It was sad but maybe fitting that Hasselbeck was the quarterback Sunday. The Colts' offensive line has been so bad it beat up Luck to a point that he can't play, and it's almost done the same for Hasselbeck. Twice Sunday, Hasselbeck returned to the game after suffering injuries. He banged up his ribs on a sideline hit. He hurt his jaw on another play.
How much did he have left in the tank?
"Today, I got nothing left," Hasselbeck said.
The same can now be said about the Colts, who finally had their luck run out on Sunday.
Inside the Huddle
The Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-27 win over the Denver Broncos was a great test to see how Brock Osweiler would do in a playoff game. Four touchdown drives in the first half was great. In the second half, though, he had five three-and-outs, an interception and was stopped on two fourth downs, giving the Steelers a chance to come back and win. That leaves the door open for a Peyton Manning return in the playoffs if he's healthy.
Despite the poor second half, Osweiler has proven he's worth signing to a contract extension to be the Broncos' quarterback of the future. The same can be said for Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins, who has the Redskins in position to maybe win the NFC East. The quarterback class of 2012 continue to gain stature.
The Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks remain two of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger was phenomenal throwing for 380 yards, including 16 completions for 189 yards to Antonio Brown. Russell Wilson continued his sharp play in a 30-13 win over Cleveland, but perhaps most importantly, the Seahawks' experiment running the ball without Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls worked. Christine Michaels -- a 2013 second-pick who was traded to Dallas who came back to be the lead back until Lynch returns -- ran for 84 yards on 16 carries. Bryce Brown was solid with 43 yards on nine carries.
Speaking of running backs, it looks as though as few as nine backs will have 1,000-yard season, four less than 2013 and 2014. Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin and Todd Gurley have reached that mark, while Jonathan Stewart, Chris Ivory, Latavius Murray, LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman and Darren McFadden are close. Lamar Miller of the Miami Dolphins hurt his chances with a 12-yard day.
The NFC, thanks to Atlanta, Washington, Green Bay and Seattle, went 4-2 in inter-conference play on Sunday and wrapped up the inter-conference championship for the season. The NFC is 34-28 with two games left. After being dominated by the AFC for close to two decades, the NFC has won four of the past five years of inter-conference play.
The Texans expect to get Brian Hoyer back from a concussion in the next week or two. That's important. Brandon Weeden is decent off the bench but isn't good when he starts and opponents have a chance to study him. The Texans need one win to clinch the AFC South.
The Kansas City Chiefs' eight-game winning streak still remains under the radar. They moved within a game of competing for the AFC West title. And perhaps most impressively, they are playing very good defense even though linebacker Justin Houston is out with a knee injury. The Chiefs split their series with the Broncos this year.
The physical and verbal battle between Panthers CB Josh Norman and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. was the best of the year. I like the Richard Sherman-Michael Crabtree competition but this battle was like an MMA flight.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron proved he could win maybe two of the next three regular-season games to get the Bengals to 12-4. The defense performed as expected, holding the San Francisco to 14 points in a 24-14 victory. The Bengals should limit the Baltimore Ravens to 17 or less in the season finale. The tough challenge will be next week against Denver and in the first round of the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers looked sharper completing 22 of 39 passes against the Oakland Raiders in a 30-20 victory, but his 5.2 yards per pass attempt shows the lack of explosiveness in the passing game.