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How did the Colts go from contender to disaster so fast this season?

Last year, the Colts started slowly and ended the season on a tear. The 2019 season was the opposite.

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Colts WR TY Hilton sits on the bench, looking up with a sad look on his face
Injuries to players like T.Y. Hilton have changed the Colts’ fortune this year.

The Indianapolis Colts are falling apart.

Despite a 5-2 start to the year, their season looks doomed to end without a trip to the playoffs. They’ve lost five of their last six games, including to the tanking Dolphins in Week 10 and to the Buccaneers in Week 14, when the Colts blew a 35-21 lead.

The downward spiral in November and December now has Indianapolis sitting at 6-7. That’s two games behind both the Texans and Titans in the AFC South, and leaves the Colts a couple games behind in the AFC Wild Card race too.

Last year, the story was the exact opposite. Indianapolis started the 2018 season 1-5, but rolled into the playoffs by winning nine of its last 10 games. The Colts’ dominant offensive line allowed the team to bulldoze opponents on the ground and then burn them deep with play-action.

Now Indianapolis is lost. Where did it all go sideways?

The passing offense vanished with injuries to Jacoby Brissett and T.Y. Hilton

When Andrew Luck surprisingly retired ahead of the 2019 season, it was hard to know what to expect out of Brissett. In 2017, the Colts finished 4-12 when they were forced to turn to Brissett due to a nagging shoulder injury for Luck. Brissett only threw 13 touchdown passes all season and was sacked an NFL-leading 52 times.

It was anyone’s guess if two more years of development — including a season under head coach Frank Reich — as well as a much improved roster would make Brissett a star.

The early returns were great. During the 5-2 start, Brissett threw for 1,590 yards, 14 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Had he kept on that pace, Brissett would be in the MVP race right now.

A knee injury ruined that, though. He went down five throws into a Week 9 game against the Steelers. Brian Hoyer took over and threw an 11-yard touchdown on his first pass to give the Colts a lead, but Pittsburgh came back to pull out a 26-24 win.

With Hoyer at the reins in Week 10, the Colts suffered their worst defeat of the year: a 16-12 loss at home to Miami.

Brissett hasn’t been the same since his return

In the four games since Brissett’s returned to the lineup, he’s thrown for 847 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. He hasn’t exactly been bad. He still helped the offense put up 35 points on the scoreboard against Tampa Bay with two passing touchdowns. Brissett just hasn’t been as accurate as he was early in the year, and it’s slowing down the offense.

Take this throw in the red zone, for example. Tight end Jack Doyle broke open on a post route, but Brissett simply missed him with a pass that was well behind its intended target.

A pass attempt from Colts QB Jacoby Brissett sails past TE Jack Doyle and falls incomplete

That’s a surprising off-target throw for a quarterback who was among the NFL’s most accurate in the first couple months of the season. The Colts settled for a field goal a few plays later.

That was a relatively fortunate result compared to some of Brissett’s other misthrows. In a Week 13 game against the Titans, a fourth-quarter pass to Zach Pascal sailed over the receiver’s head and into the arms of defensive back Logan Ryan.

Colts QB Jacoby Brissett is intercepted by Titans S Logan Ryan

Three plays later, the Titans scored a touchdown to turn a seven-point lead to a 31-17 game with just over three minutes left.

It hasn’t helped that Brissett’s also been without his top weapon.

Hilton’s absence leaves a huge hole

The Colts’ top receiver suffered a calf injury at the beginning of November, and it’s kept him out of action in five out of the last six weeks. His only action over that span came in a Week 12 loss to the Texans in which he tallied 18 receiving yards. Hilton also had two critical drops and said the loss was “totally on me” before it was eventually revealed that he reaggravated his calf injury during the game.

Indianapolis hasn’t been able to replace his production in the lineup.

It’s been exacerbated by receivers Parris Campbell, Devin Funchess, and Chester Rogers, as well as tight end Eric Ebron, all landing on injured reserve.

Hilton, specifically, brings the threat of a deep pass that keeps defenses honest. The Colts are sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, but the play-action pass that complements that kind of rushing attack hasn’t been there for Indianapolis.

The team has just three pass plays of more than 40 yards this season. Two of them came in the most recent loss to the Buccaneers. Both were connections with third-year receiver Marcus Johnson, a promising development but probably not a sustainable one. Simply put, the Colts really miss Hilton.

What happened to the defense, though?

The Colts’ defense is coming off its worst game of the year after surrendering 542 yards to the Buccaneers.

Even with Jameis Winston throwing three interceptions, Indianapolis couldn’t get enough stops to win. In the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay engineered an eight-play, 63-yard touchdown drive to take the lead, and the Colts couldn’t do anything about it. That was even after Tampa Bay lost its top receiver, Mike Evans, in the first quarter to a hamstring injury.

“We played man, zone, everything,” Colts free safety Malik Hooker told the Indianapolis Star. “1 high, 2 high, everything. They just found our weaknesses when we were messing up and capitalized on them.”

In the offseason, the Colts spent their first two picks of the 2019 NFL Draft on cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and linebacker Ben Banogu. All five of the team’s selections in Rounds 3-6 were spent on defensive players. The Colts also made a rare, high-priced free agent acquisition by signing pass rusher Justin Houston to a two-year, $24 million deal.

All those changes to the defense haven’t yielded results. The Colts were 16th against the pass in 2018 and they’re 22nd in 2019. They finished last year with 38 sacks and currently have 33 through 13 games (on pace for 41).

Injuries have made an impact on that side of the ball, too. Pass rusher Kemoko Turay’s hot start to the year was ended with a broken ankle in October, while young players like Hooker, linebacker Darius Leonard, and cornerback Kenny Moore have been off and on the injury report. Overall though, the Indianapolis defense is healthy enough that it shouldn’t giving up 500-yard performances.

Lackluster receiving depth, injuries, mediocre defense, and inopportune misses from 46-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri (who is on injured reserve now) have the Colts in a deep hole. It’d take a miracle to make the playoffs. They’d need to win out and either hope the Titans and Texans both lose two out of their last three, or hope every team in the mix for the wild card falls flat. It almost definitely won’t happen.

FiveThirtyEight has the Colts’ playoff chances at 2 percent, although a loss to the Saints in Week 15 is all it would take to drop that to zero.

The future is still bright in Indianapolis. Brissett’s performance early in the year inspired optimism that he can fill the large shoes of Luck and Peyton Manning. Just two months ago, he led the Colts to back-to-back wins over the Chiefs and Texans. Give him back Hilton and the rest of his receivers — along with another weapon or two in the offseason — and it’ll be easy to be confident about a Brissett.

Perhaps a healthier 2020 could finally produce a Colts team that is good from start to finish.