What started with an ill-timed taunt ended in utter embarrassment for the Indianapolis Colts.
The Dallas Cowboys played like a team in need of a victory to clinch the NFC East Division title and an automatic playoff berth. The Colts looked like a team with an AFC playoff spot secure, hence no sense of urgency.
A 42-7 Cowboys conquest of the Colts Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, couldn’t have been more one-sided. It was the Colts’ worst regular-season loss since a 59-24 thrashing at New England in 2012.
Dallas clinched its first division title since 2009.
The snowball began to roll on the opening drive, when the Colts (10-5) should have had a third-down stop of the Cowboys (11-4). Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman drilled running back Lance Dunbar after a short pass.
Then Freeman stood over Dunbar and screamed. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting gave the Cowboys a first down. And Dallas cashed it in with Tony Romo 9-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams.
On the ensuing series, the Colts couldn’t gain a first down in three plays but tried a fake-punt pass. Punter Pat McAfee’s throw was on target to move the chains, but Dewey McDonald, a rookie reserve safety, dropped it.
Just like that, the rout was on.
Dallas scored touchdowns on its first four possessions. The Colts did nothing. Andrew Luck passed for a career-low 109 yards with two interceptions.
Romo finished with four touchdown passes and, with little or no pressure from the Colts’ pass rush, completed 18-of-20 passes for 218 yards. Then backup quarterback Brandon Weeden entered and threw a 43-yard scoring pass to Williams. NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray also had a touchdown run.
Luck did not have a touchdown pass for the first time this season. He entered with a league-leading 38 touchdown passes. It’s just the eighth time in 47 regular-season starts Luck has not thrown at least one touchdown pass.
The Colts averted their first regular-season shutout in 21 years in the final quarter, when backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw a 1-yard scoring pass to rookie running back Zurlon Tipton. It was Tipton’s first NFL TD, not that many will remember it.
The loss drops the Colts to the fourth AFC playoff seed, regardless of the outcome of Monday’s Denver at Cincinnati game. Pittsburgh (10-5) defeated Kansas City and should the Bengals (9-4-1) lose to the Broncos, the Steelers would take the AFC North Division lead and control the third seed by virtue of a win over the Colts. Should the Bengals win, they would have the division lead and the third seed.
The Bengals are at the Steelers in the regular-season finale, which likely means the Colts could be stuck at the fourth seed, unless the Bengals lost to the Broncos then defeated the Steelers and the Colts prevailed in their finale at Tennessee (2-13).
The Colts finished with a franchise-record-low 1 rushing yard on 10 carries as well as a season-low 229 total yards. Hasselbeck completed 15-of-21 passes for 126 yards.
The ugly loss continued a Colts season trend against the NFL’s better teams. Their five losses are to Denver (11-3), Philadelphia (9-6), Pittsburgh (10-5), New England (12-3) and now the Cowboys (11-4). The Colts have lost those five games by a combined score of 196-112.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.