The Colts and Philip Rivers are at a crossroads after loss to Bills

Philip Rivers and the Indianapolis Colts have decisions to make about next season. What are the factors in facing the future?

Saturday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills put the Indianapolis Colts’ 2021 needs and Rivers’ 2021 value in perspective.

Last week I wrote that the Colts needed to win any six of the following factors. I deducted Covid-19 after publication. Using game book stats, I put a W for five “wins” and and L for eight losses:

W * Spread the passing around, four or more receivers with 20 or more yards
L * Jonathan Taylor hits 100+ Yards
L * Win the turnover battle by 2 or more
L * On third down conversions, hit 55% or better
W * Nyheim Hines hits 60+ yards from scrimmage
L! * Big special teams plays, flawless kicking by Blankenship
? * Establish the short passing game. (Update: eventually, but they stuck with run game too long)
W * Pressure Josh Allen like he hasn’t experienced this season (Update: Allen too often escaped good pressure)
W * Rivers does not try to play hero ball; he counts to three and throws, or throws away.
L! * The secondary plays their best game in months
L * Michael Pittman Jr. has a breakout game with 6+ receptions
W * Tight ends are heavily involved in the passing game.
L * The Colts post fewer penalties than the Bills.

In the above scorecard, there are holes to fill for next season before dreaming of a Super Bowl. And sober second thought for people who ignore situational football and chant, “run the damn ball” — not if you lose the daggum game.

Rivers’ Playoff performance is a fair correlation to Rivers’ performance over the regular season. 

“The loss to the Bills: that’s what Rivers always does! He always throws interceptions, he always fumbles away the team’s chances.”

That claim above was the pre-fabricated narrative of some, but in the  Colts’ AFC Wild Card game against the 13-3 No. 2 Bills, their pre-judgment proved false. While the team did not do well enough in the red zone, it was not Rivers who was stuffed trying to run it in, nor did let the ball slip through his fingers in the end zone, nor did he clank a mid-range field goal attempt off the upright.

The old gunslinger Rivers was not the winner, but neither was he a prominent part of the loss. Two TDs in the fourth quarter, over 300 yards, and most notably, no turnovers!

I get the feeling Rivers’ caustic critics are also the ones who screamed for Cam Newton last spring. 

Did you feel that, in the fourth quarter, the Colts stopped insisting on the run-first approach, and let Rivers loose? And that was when Rivers started “paying the Bills” using his tight ends? One fact in evidence is that was when Buffalo then pulled out of their game-long loaded box against the run and only THEN the running backs were able to rip off some key long runs.

Colts coaches committed to the run-first offense, Buffalo anticipated that, and the Colts’ adjustment came about two minutes too late to tie the game. Rivers ran out of time.

Another factor: by our count there were six uncontested dropped passes, one in the end zone. Rookie WR Michael Pittman caught only five of 10 targets and Hilton was at 40%.  Rivers made a handful of poor throws, but none intercepted, and instead of risking an interception, he threw the ball away intentionally at least four times. Credit Frank Reich with correcting Rivers’ bad habits from 2019.

If just four targets had been made from dropped passes, River’s completion percentage would pop up to his season average of  68%. I’m not saying Rivers played a perfect game, or even a great game, but he played very well — well enough to win if he was able to get a few more plays from his teammates.

The Game of Inches

In Buffalo, the Colts won so many statistical battles but lost the war, through the kicking game, penalties, and red zone brain farts.

I’m proud of the Colts, they didn’t give up. Their offense roared back in the fourth quarter, and the win was painfully right there for them to seize. They came up just short, in one missed Kick of Destiny, one end zone drop, and one 4th and goal.

Back to the Future: should Rivers get an offer to return?

I’m not sure that’s the biggest question. Upgrading the secondary seems to be the most urgent. The back end of the Colts defense gave up too many 20+ yard plays over the course of this year.

And the wide receivers, in the 2021 one-and-done playoff game, looked weak in comparison to the Bills’. Michael Pittman has yet to prove he is the next T.Y. Hilton. Neither are close to Stefon Diggs.

Michael Pittman #11 of the Indianapolis Colts can’t complete a touchdown pass against the Buffalo Bills  on January 09, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

Regarding Rivers, what more could you ask of him, or expect of him? 

You can see where he placed in key statistics compared to other starting quarterbacks for the 2020 regular season.

The great thing about football is that no one who disputes the numbers, or the loss, is taken seriously. Everyone on every team is willing to to accept facts in evidence, officials’ rulings, and move on. The NFL is about quarterback consistency, not QAnon conspiracy. So while Rivers’ 2020 stats do not rival Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers, they did outpace many familiar names, in QBR, completion percentage, total yards, turnovers, etc.

And Rivers’ 97 passer rating this season is better than any Andrew Luck season except 2018, where Luck was 98.7 (yet in 2018, Rivers QBR in LA was 105.5, good for fourth in the league).

Rookies Taylor and Pittman have a ton of potential. The things that went wrong are fixable. The shortage of talent is limited to just a few positions.

Trade for the whole football world but give up the team’s soul?

I’ve heard some folks say that the Colts should trade anything necessary to get Deshaun Watson. Trade anything? Watson was brilliant this year and got nowhere because of the bad roster around him. I would trade major draft picks for Watson, but NOT trade away more than one star on our team, and not Jonathan Taylor, Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, or one of our other 2020 Pro Bowlers.

Peculiar Predictions

  • Rivers will be asked to re-sign and agrees, and both his key stats and the Colts’ Super Bowl chances actually improve in 2021.
  • Two members in the secondary, and two in the receiving corps, won’t be with the team by August 2021.