For the Indianapolis Colts, it was simple: Win against a 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars team that had scored over 20 points just once since Halloween and was eyeing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and you're in.
But the heavily favored horseshoes weren't so lucky Sunday afternoon, losing improbably in Jacksonville, 26-11. To make matters worse for the Colts (9-8), who had been in control of their football destiny for the past two weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Baltimore Ravens eliminated Indy from playoff contention.
"I never expected to be sitting here having this moment right now, not like this," Colts coach Frank Reich said after the game. "We had a good week of practice. We had good preparation all week long, felt good energy the whole week, every day, every meeting. We felt like we had three good plans. We felt like the players were dialed in. We just didn't get it done today. We just didn't get it done, coaching or playing."
The Colts entered Week 17 on a tear, having won eight of their last 10, including victories over the playoff-bound Bills, Patriots and Cardinals. But Indy stumbled at home with a chance to clinch a berth to the Las Vegas Raiders, losing at the end by a field goal.
Then came Sunday. The Colts struggled to move the ball against Jacksonville, let Trevor Lawrence play the best game of his rookie season and entered halftime down 13-3. Indy then committed multiple second-half turnovers when they were already down big and only found the end zone on its final possession of the season, cutting a 23-point deficit to a 15-point hole. The Colts were outgained by Jacksonville, 318-233, went just 4-of-12 on third down and lost the turnover battle -- a recipe for disaster with the season on the line.
Just like that, as NFL Network's Rich Eisen put it, Indy went from the team nobody wanted to see in the playoffs to a team nobody is seeing in the playoffs.
"We started the way we started. It was out of our hands," Reich said, referring to Indy's 1-4 start. "We fought our way and clawed to get it back in our hands. And then the last two weeks of the season, we did what we did. It starts with me as a head coach, and we've got to figure out how we can close this season out the right way.
"We had the opportunity, we had control of our own destiny, we just didn't get it done."
The culprits of the Colts' collapse litter their roster, but fingers will likely be pointed at Carson Wentz, who missed a week of practice leading up to Week 17 after testing positive for COVID-19 and upon his return posted two of his worst outings of the season in successive weeks. Wentz threw for just 148 yards and missed myriad throws against the Raiders, and then committed both of Indy's turnovers, took six sacks and completed just 58.6 percent of his passes against the woebegone Jaguars.
The end of Wentz's first year in Indianapolis left the QB dumbfounded.
"It's hard to put your finger on it right now," Wentz said when asked to diagnose his disappointing finish to the season. "Sluggish, not the dynamic explosive offense we always thought we were. ... I've got to protect the ball. I've got to do a better job. So there's a lot that could be said and a lot of things to digest right now. But it's a frustrating, kinda crappy feeling right now."
Reich said he wouldn't single out one player for the team's failures and expressed confidence in Wentz's future with the club.
"I think Carson did a lot. I think he's our quarterback," Reich said. "I think we're all going to learn and grow from this year, how to utilize every player that we have to the fullest. I think there were a lot of bright moments for him, for Carson."
There were bright spots for many players on Indianapolis in 2021, particularly Jonathan Taylor, who was garnering MVP consideration before the Colts' late-season crash. But the second-year RB's last game of the year was his least productive since Week 8, a 77-yard day. Taylor finished the campaign with a league-high 332 carries, 1,811 rushing yards and 20 total TDs (18 rushing).
Taylor's stellar year is now but a footnote in Indy's improbable exit from the 2021 season.
"It sucks," Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard summed up. "As of right now, that's all it is. It sucks. We came down here and just flat out got dominated. You know, it just sucks."