|Sputtering Colts look to alter fortunes vs. Bengals|
For most of this decade, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals have been playoff regulars in the AFC.
In fact, Indianapolis reached the AFC championship game three seasons ago before absorbing a blowout loss on a rainy night in New England. That game would be largely forgotten were it not for a Colts' complaint that brought about "Deflategate" and gave John Jastremski and Jim McNally 15 minutes of fame they'd just as soon never had.
It's also a safe bet that the Colts would like to get back to the point where they could blame deflated footballs, or Jastremski or McNally, for a critical defeat. At 2-5 and fresh off a brutal 27-0 shutout loss last week at home to AFC South co-leader Jacksonville, their 2017 season has reached the point of no return.
But if Indianapolis is looking for sympathy Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, it has likely come to the wrong place. Cincinnati (2-4) is in a similar position, with its 26-14 defeat last week in Pittsburgh dropping it 2 1/2 games off the pace in the AFC North.
Simply put, if either team wants to realize the playoff hopes it brought out of training camp, a win here is required.
"We've dug ourselves a nice little hole," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "But we have an opportunity to write whatever we want to write. We've written seven chapters. There are nine more to write."
Were there an editor on hand to read over the seventh chapter, it would have probably been killed before even making it to print or online. Pick an aspect of the game and Indianapolis stunk at it.
Offense? The Colts' line got Jacoby Brissett, a fairly mobile quarterback, sacked no less than 10 times. The defense gave up a whopping 518 yards to a Jaguars offense missing its top player, rookie running back Leonard Fournette, and allowed mistake-prone quarterback Blake Bortles to throw for 330 yards.
About the only positive associated with that debacle was rookie punter Rigoberto Sanchez, who averaged nearly 45 yards in seven attempts and downed four kicks inside the 20.
"Never got anything going on either side of the ball," Pagano said. "Defensively, we showed some signs but then we had some lapses. Eight plays for 298 yards offense. You can't win games that way."
To insult and generally poor play, add injuries. Quarterback Andrew Luck (shoulder) will miss his eighth straight game and rookie safety Malik Hooker, one of the few bright spots on a defense allowing the most points of any in the NFL, tore the ACL and MCL in his knee last week and will miss the season's remainder.
Hooker's absence will only make the Indianapolis defense more vulnerable to whatever the Bengals want to do. And their offense figures to come into this one with a point to prove after picking up just one first down in the second half at Pittsburgh.
It was Cincinnati's fifth straight loss to the Steelers and its 23rd in 31 meetings with the division rival during coach Marvin Lewis' tenure. The strain of all those defeats could have been evidenced in Lewis' terse response to a question about why rookie running back Joe Mixon and the offense's top weapon, wide receiver A.J. Green, never touched the ball after halftime.
"Whatever plays are called are called," Lewis said.
It seems to be a fairly safe bet that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who injected some life into a unit that was awful before he took over for Ken Zampese after Week 2, will put the ball in the hands of Mixon and Green pretty early.
A slow start in this one is the last thing the Bengals need. With a three-game road trip coming up in which they will be underdogs in every game (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Cincinnati), they can't afford to flub this one.
Quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw for only 34 yards and had two passes picked off after halftime in Pittsburgh, said Cincinnati can't dwell on its repeated failures against the Steelers.
"The Steelers are just one team," he said. "They aren't the only team we play. It is not about us against the Steelers, it's about us playing well and beating whoever we are playing."