Wilson's Word: No mistaking this reality

Until the Colts beat the Patriots, or any other elite NFL team, they won't be taken seriously as championship contenders.

When the Indianapolis Colts began this season with a loss at Denver, we still saw some positives in rallying from a 24-0 deficit to make it a game late in a 31-24 defeat.

Then the Colts lost at home to Philadelphia after leading by two touchdowns. The reasons for a 30-27 setback that they should have won were numerous. The no-call when wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was obviously held on a key third-down pass that was intercepted. The fact the Colts were even throwing at all when in field-goal range to make it a 10-point lead with about 5 minutes remaining. And then some conservative playcalling on the Colts’ final offensive series with the game tied.

A five-game winning streak eased concerns about what was going on with the guys wearing the horseshoe helmets. Then came Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in a 51-34 Colts demise at Heinz Field. Hey, he had a six-pack the next week, too, in beating Baltimore at home. Then the Steelers lost on the road to the New York Jets.

The easy rationalization was that the Colts just ran into a hot quarterback. Head coach Chuck Pagano admitted the team got outcoached, but the Steelers played better. It happens in the NFL on a weekly basis, right? Anybody see Denver lose at St. Louis on Sunday?

Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, in front of a nationally televised primetime audience, there was no mistaking what happened to the Colts.

They were literally run over by the New England Patriots, 42-20. Somebody I had never heard of named Jonas Gray scored four touchdowns and ran for 199 yards. In the wee hours of Monday morning while writing this blog, ESPN informed it was the first time a player scored four touchdowns without having any before since 1921.

Exhale. Are you frickin’ kidding me?

Doing some online research on the guy didn’t cushion the blow. The first-year pro from Notre Dame was playing in just his fourth NFL game. And he spent the previous two years on practice squads in Miami and Baltimore.

Not to get sidetracked on how an unknown made the Colts’ ninth-ranked run defense look like its tacklers were lost somewhere in witness protection, but the time for making excuses and offering rationalizations is now past.

I’m not going to hammer away like others that the Colts are a team in crisis. I understand the emotions of the moment and how beyond frustrating it was to watch this team get manhandled on its own FieldTurf.

The Colts aren’t a bad team. If you need to be reminded of what one looks like, just wait until next Sunday, when the 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars visit Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts are a good team, but they’re not great. The Patriots are great. And there was nothing fancy to how they proved it. It was old-fashioned smashmouth stuff, with a couple of TD passes mixed in. Yeah, tight end Rob Gronkowski finished the scoring with an exceptional effort on a 26-yard pass play, but I’m still wondering if it was after three or four missed tackles?

Since day one, Pagano’s goal was to build a team that could run the ball and stop the run. That’s proven to be a rather difficult task, when sizing up this endeavor after the Colts go up against the NFL’s elite.

There’s been progress, as much as critics won’t see it, but the Colts are 6-4 with four losses to playoff-caliber teams. In those games, weaknesses have been exploited. And while the popular line is that the mistakes need to be reviewed on film and then corrected, that just doesn’t wash after watching this game.

I’m still convinced the Colts will win the AFC South Division and make the playoffs. They’ll be favored to win five of the last six games, the lone exception being a late-December trip to Dallas. And after watching how the Cowboys struggle with picking up blitzes, I’ll give the Colts a fighter’s chance in that one.

But until the Colts take down one of the league’s best teams, even the most optimistic observer is going to be hard pressed to exude too much confidence. Not trying to be overly harsh, just realistic. At some point, it’s about proving it.

The Colts have proven in three years that they could rebuild on the fly, despite obvious shortcomings, and quarterback Andrew Luck is the single most important reason they’ve made the playoffs the last two years and will do so again. Oh, and for all of you Luck critics, he didn’t have a bad game Sunday night, his quarterback rating of 90 was higher than Tom Brady’s 85.

But we’ve seen this routine before with Peyton Manning. So many times the Colts looked like contenders, Manning put up gaudy numbers and won league MVP awards, then in the bitter cold of January, we were remind those teams lacked something.

I’ve got to be honest, folks. I picked the Patriots to win. Because I saw how they’ve been playing in what is now a six-game winning streak. Their O-line issues have been fixed. Brady is getting time to throw. And the defense has been playing well.

Surely some people in Indianapolis watched New England take apart Manning and the Denver Broncos 43-21 two weeks ago in Foxborough, Mass. Yeah, the Patriots beat those guys by 22 points, too. Same margin as Sunday night.

My expectation was for the Colts to give the Patriots a good game, and if they got a few breaks and played well, I gave the home team a fighting chance to pull it out. I didn’t expect this. And when New England drove down the field and stuffed it into the end zone right from the start, I just knew it was going to be a long night.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who the running back was. A conversation with a Boston reporter earlier in the week reminded me that New England coach Bill Belichick has a proven system that values certain positions more than others. He figures he can get anybody to run the ball or even catch it, and the guy has won enough with his system, I’m thinking he knows something that maybe a lot of others don’t. We saw LeGarrette Blount run through the Colts last January and Belichick didn’t keep him.

The Colts lost this game in the trenches. And while I realize Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has tried everything to bolster both of his lines, be it draft picks, free-agent additions, whatever, this team still hasn’t closed the gap enough on the Patriots.

Yeah, it’s beyond frustrating, losing 59-24, 43-22 and 42-20 to those guys in the last three years.

The Colts are better than most in a league with plenty of parity, but they still can’t come close to beating the Patriots. And that’s the measuring stick, moving forward. No excuses. No rationalizations. No more always trying to find the bright side of life.

That’s the bottom line made crystal clear, once again, Sunday night.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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