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Colts’ Playoff Hopes Remain Alive Despite Blowout Loss and Flaws Revealed After 4-Game Streak

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts skirted around the edge during their four-game winning streak.

On Sunday, they danced right off of it.

Cincinnati exploited Indy’s aggressive pass rush with three long screen passes, the Colts’ ground game struggled again, and even the special teams unit that played so well one week earlier broke down in a 34-14 loss.

On Monday, the embarrassed Colts (7-6) were already back at work, searching for a quick fix.

“We opened Pandora’s box (Sunday) for sure with the screen game,” two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said after the Bengals used 54- and 46-yard passes to fuel their first two touchdown drives. “We’ve got to go to the tape, we’ve got to look at our fits, and how we can turn the screens back inside to the guys pursuing the ball. We’ve got to put that fire out quick.”

Indy’s most lopsided loss of the season did not significantly damage its playoff hopes.

The Colts (7-6) still sit in the AFC’s seventh and final playoff spot, still trail AFC South-leading Jacksonville by one game and still can improve their postseason chances by protecting their home field Saturday against the low-scoring Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the Cincinnati game was alarming for a team that spent the previous month celebrating the different ways it used to win games.

The Colts returned two interceptions for touchdowns to topple Carolina and used a late interception and late field goal to put away the Patriots. It took a surprise fourth-and-1 call and a late strip-sack to beat the Buccaneers and two nifty pass plays late in overtime to rally against Tennessee.

On Sunday, they never had a chance to make a late, game-changing play.

They lost the turnover battle. They had a touchdown nullified by a penalty. Matt Gay missed a field goal and an extra point. And a defense that averaged 16.8 points allowed during the four wins yielded more than twice that against the Bengals and their backup quarterback, Jake Browning.

“We have a drive going, and a penalty moves us back. We have another drive going, and another penalty moves us back,” coach Shane Steichen said. “A lot of that stuff — the punt, Ameer (Speed) runs into (returner Isaiah McKenzie). In that situation I was thinking, ‘Geez, Louise.’”

The Colts are still in playoff contention. To stay there, they need to regain their edge.

“It was just one of those days,” Steichen said. “I have full confidence that we’ll get it cleaned up.”

WHAT’S WORKING

WR Michael Pittman Jr. He has at least eight receptions in six straight games and fell 5 yards short of his third straight 100-yard games. Pittman needs 16 yards for his second 1,000-yard season and is five catches away from his first 100-reception season in a contract year.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The ground game. Indy’s woes cannot be traced entirely to the absence of 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor. But losing Taylor to a right thumb injury hasn’t helped. Indy has failed to to rush for 80 or more yards four of its last six games after topping 125 yards six times in its first eight.

STOCK UP

LB Ronnie Harrison Jr. Three weeks ago, Harrison was promoted to the active roster after the surprise release of three-time All-Pro Shaquille Leonard. In his first three games, Harrison has seven tackles and has picked off two passes, including a pick-6 late in the first half Sunday that tied the score at 14.

STOCK DOWN

LT Bernhard Raimann. He has played relatively well in his second season as Indy’s blind-side protector. But Raiman struggled at Cincinnati, allowing two sacks and additional pressures. He also drew a tripping penalty while trying to slow down Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson.

INJURIES

Indy had four starters out against the Bengals — Taylor, RT Braden Smith (knee), LB E.J. Speed (knee) and CB JuJu Brents (quad). It’s not clear whether any of the four could return this week.

KEY NUMBER

2 — Sunday was just the second time this year Indy failed to score 20 or more points, and the first time it happened on American soil. It scored just 10 points in Germany, which was enough to beat New England.

NEXT STEPS

The Colts will face another backup quarterback on Saturday and, like the Bengals, the Steelers and Mitch Trubisky may try to slow Indy’s pass rush with screens. Unlike the Bengals, though, the Steelers are scoring just 16.2 points per game. It’s up to Indy’s defense to help the team bounce back.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

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