It wasn’t that long ago that Andrew Luck‘s arm appeared to be shot.
It was even less long ago that the Colts were 1-5.
Now they’re a playoff team.
The Colts held off the Titans 33-17 in the final game of the regular season, securing the final spot in the AFC playoffs and a date with the Texans next Saturday. It’s the Frank Reich against the Oilers of seasons, and they’ve taken on their rookie coach’s penchant for timeliness.
It isn’t always pretty, but they don’t have the roster to overwhelm, at least not yet. What they have is a generally smart quarterback in Andrew Luck (other than the mystery interception), who fits in seamlessly, and knows how to spread the ball around.
He finished the game 24-of-35 for 285 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. And when he hit tight end Ryan Hewitt for a touchdown in the third quarter, it made Hewitt the 13th different player to catch a touchdown pass from him this year.
After not playing at all last year as he recovered from shoulder problems, he’s having one of his best seasons. And he’s lifting his team to an improbable comeback. Which his coach knows a little something about.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley are the favorites, and one of them will probably win offensive rookie of the year.
But the job left guard Quenton Nelson has done to help transform the Colts into a power team is one of the most impressive this season.
The sixth-overall pick from Notre Dame was highly touted, and may be better than advertised. He simply flattens people, and the personality has rubbed off on the Colts line.
Along with second-round right tackle Braden Smith, they’ve transformed the Colts line into a good one, allowing Luck to shine and a store-brand cast of backs to look like difference-makers. While some might have them spend a pile of cap money on a Le’Veon Bell, Marlon Mack ran 25 times for 119 yards and a touchdown, and looks like all the back they need.
2. As we say in the South: “Bless their hearts, the Titans tried.”
An otherwise promising year for rookie coach Mike Vrabel and his tough, physical team came undone for the usual football reason — they ran out of guys.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota not being available was the final blow, but the Titans had far too many contributors fall along the wayside this year to be truly competitive in a playoff setting.
From recent IR additions Jurrell Casey and Logan Ryan, to right tackle Jack Conklin to the depth-chart-killing tight end shortage (Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith), it just became impossible for the Titans to compete.
Sometimes such shortages are the result of poor planning or cap management, which prevents you from being as deep as you’d like. But sometimes it’s just plain, dumb, luck, and the Titans ran out.
Again, a team with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback isn’t an actual playoff team, but the absence of Casey was noteworthy Sunday night, as the few times they pressured Luck he made some mistakes.
3. Not to pick on Gabbert (soound the “no disrespect” horn), but it’s hard to imagine anyone putting him in a position to impact a potential playoff game ever again.
He must be a wonderful teammate and human being, because he’s not very good at being a quarterback, and his dreadful fourth-quarter interception (the first one) buried the Titans’ season. He was 18-of-29 for 165 yards, a touchdown and two picks. You can’t make the playoffs averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.
Even if you don’t believe that quarterback wins are a stat, he’s now 13-35 as a starter in the regular season (He has never quarterbacked in the postseason). That’s so profoundly bad that it has to be something.
And if the Titans tire of him, he’ll doubtless get another job, either because he just looks like a quarterback, or failed first-rounders will always make egomaniacal coaches think their particular genius can fix him. Either way, it’s a terrible idea.
4. Colts tight end Eric Ebron‘s second-quarter touchdown gave him 14 for the season, and made him one of the league’s great comeback stories of the year.
Usually the awards go to guys who come back from injury or illness, but Ebron overcoming years of being a Lion ought to be worth something.
He was widely regarded as a draft bust, for never living up to the expectations of being chosen 10th overall in 2014. And in fairness, the fact the next three picks were Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald made it easy to see.
But it might have been a matter of finding the right fit. Luck has always been good for tight ends, and with Jack Doyle out injured, Ebron has emerged as one of his most reliable weapons.
His touchdown allowed him to surpass his entire scoring total from four years in Detroit (12 total touchdowns in four seasons there), and prove that he belongs in the conversation with the other players chosen in the 2014 first round.
5. With the loss, the Titans (9-7) will pick 19th in the 2019 NFL Draft, followed by the Steelers (9-6-1).
After watching the Ravens hold off the Browns late, the Steelers were reduced to hoping for a tie, as they’d have won the three-way tiebreaker if the Colts and Titans failed to reach a result.
The rest of the draft order can be seen here, with the top 20 spots now set.