Philip Rivers’ unpredictability makes Colts NFL’s most frustrating team

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers was flat on his back, arms and legs outstretched as if preparing to make snow angels. Only there was no snow inside Lucas Oil Stadium. There was only disappointment for the Colts and Rivers, who had just endured the ignominy of tripping over his own feet and having Ravens safety Chuck Clark hop over the top of him while returning a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown.

The score came late in the first quarter, but in hindsight, it was a sign of how the afternoon would play out for the Colts, who in a disturbing trend were once again unable to meet the challenge against a quality opponent, the 24-10 defeat raising more questions about their legitimacy as Super Bowl contenders.

Despite being 5-3, it’s getting harder to buy into them because their record has been built on a foundation of Jell-O, with victories over the winless Jets, the two-win Bengals and the three-win Vikings and Lions. Overall, their opponents’ .349 win percentage entering Sunday was the lowest in the league.

I’ve never been one to downgrade a team for beating up on bad opponents because teams have no control over the schedule. But if you consistently fall flat when stepping up in competition — Indianapolis is 1-2 against teams with winning records, losing to Cleveland and Baltimore while beating Chicago — you start sliding across the spectrum from contender to pretender, regardless of how often coach Frank Reich claims to have “more conviction” he possesses the right personnel to compete for a championship.

His words on Sunday are likely to be the backdrop for the franchise over the next three games, as the Colts will sandwich games against AFC South-leading Tennessee (6-2) around a matchup against NFC North-leading Green Bay (6-2). How they come out of those contests will likely depend on the play of the offense, which has been as inconsistent as its quarterback.

Rivers arrived in Indianapolis in the offseason seeking to prove his struggles the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers were less about him and more about the circumstances around him. He threw 63 interceptions and fumbled 27 times, losing 10, during that span. More troubling than the turnovers themselves were the times in the game when some occurred: late in one-score games. The Chargers lost nine games by one score or less last season, and Rivers had a turnover in the final 63 seconds of four of them.

Sunday raised more questions about his ball-security issues, as the interception he threw on Indianapolis’ initial second-half series invigorated the Ravens at a time when doubt could have crept in. Consider, nothing had gone right for the Ravens’ offense in the first half. It gained just 55 net yards, and its league-leading ground game was held to 18 yards on 10 carries. The Ravens’ only points were on Clark’s fumble return, and now, to open the second half, the unit had lost a fumble on first-and-goal at the Indianapolis 3-yard line.

Then Good Philip — the guy who was 12 of 19 for 126 yards and no turnovers in the first half; the guy who had thrown for 633 yards and six scores with one interception the previous two games — was replaced by Bad Philip, whose underthrown deep pass to Marcus Johnson was intercepted by Marcus Peters. Ten plays and 54 yards later, the Ravens had their first lead on a 1-yard TD run by Gus Edwards and never looked back.

Baltimore’s final three possessions went touchdown, punt, field goal; Indianapolis’ final four went punt, downs, downs, end of game.

“We took a shot,” Reich said of the pass to Johnson. “You’re going to hit some and you’re going to miss some.”

“Poorly thrown,” said Rivers, who has been on the minus side in turnover differential in each of Indianapolis’ losses, throwing one touchdown and five interceptions in the defeats.

The Good Philip/Bad Philip conundrum makes the Colts the league’s most frustrating team. They have one of the league’s top defenses, bolstered by the offseason trade for tackle DeForest Buckner, and one of the game’s top offensive lines. The thought entering the season was that they were a quality quarterback from making a run, so expectations soared when Rivers joined them after 16 seasons with the Chargers.

And yet the only thing they’ve shown so far is that they can beat the teams they’re supposed to beat and struggle against those that are on equal footing. Sunday was particularly confounding because everything appeared to be trending in their direction: They were coming off two of their best games, tallying a season-high 41 points in one and averaging an astounding 7.2 yards per play in the other, their high for the year. They also were coming off two of their top three passing performances in terms of yards and facing a team that had every excuse to be off its game.

The Ravens were coming off a painful loss to bitter rival Pittsburgh, in which two starting offensive linemen were lost for the year to injury. They practiced without seven defensive players during the week because of COVID-19 protocols and were without All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who tested positive for the virus. They lost standout defensive lineman Calais Campbell early in the game to a calf injury, did not score on offense in the first two quarters and trailed 10-7 at the half, which was notable considering they had lost 20 consecutive games when trailing at the half.

And yet Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson, the 2019 league MVP, completed all 10 of his passes for 119 yards and ran for a 9-yard score after the break. He was everything his counterpart was not in the final two quarters, as Rivers was 13 of 24 for 101 yards and an interception. The Colts did not score in the second half. After the game, Rivers brushed aside talk of the Colts failing to make a statement against a quality opponent.

“It’s a long season,” he said. “Certainly this (Baltimore club) is a playoff football team, they’ve been in it the last few years, they’re a good football team. But I don’t know that statements do you any good if you don’t finish the year off right. So, it’s one we let get away; it’s one that they earned, they beat us. But … we’ve got to pick up and move forward.”

The first chance to make a more positive statement comes Thursday night against the Titans. If history is the guide, the Colts will go as their quarterback goes.

“I think we are good enough,” Rivers said, “but we’ll find out.”