MINNEAPOLIS — Most of them didn’t even know.
DeForest Buckner sat at his locker, picking a scab from his knee, trying to stop the blood from trickling down his shin.
“Shoot, I’m in disbelief, man,” the defensive tackle said. “We preach the word ‘FINISH’ all the time around here. But we don’t finish.”
Across the room, Quenton Nelson slumped in his seat, his eyes fixed on the floor, his mind lost in thought. The Pro Bowl guard sat silently, trying to process what he’d just been a part of — the biggest blown lead in the 102-year history of the NFL, a humbling reality he and most of his teammates didn’t have the faintest clue about until they were asked about it after the game.
Amid a season that’s been crumbling for months, this felt like a new low, one of the most unfathomable afternoons of football this franchise has ever been a part of.
“I’m shocked,” Nelson said. “I mean, that was insane.”
THE @VIKINGS CAP OFF THE LARGEST COMEBACK IN NFL HISTORY.
FROM 33-0 DOWN TO 39-36. #INDvsMIN pic.twitter.com/p4vtjhuPY7
— NFL (@NFL) December 17, 2022
How does a team blow a 33-point halftime lead?
“Speechless,” cornerback Isaiah Rodgers chimed in.
“An embarrassment,” safety Julian Blackmon called it.
Embarrassment. After Vikings 39, Colts 36, that word feels appropriate. Because that’s what this was: an utter and incomprehensible embarrassment, the latest and loudest punctuation mark on a humiliating season that’s been doomed from the start, and furthermore, a damning indictment on a flailing franchise that feels more lost, more dejected, more despondent than it has in decades.
Kravitz: Colts go to historic lengths to embarrass themselves on national TV … again
Consider: Going all the way back to 1930, NFL teams had been 1,548-1-1 when leading by 30 or more points in a game.
No more. They are now 1,548-2-1.
The Colts made history Saturday; they were just on the wrong side of it. Their overtime loss to the Vikings — the Colts’ seventh defeat in eight games and fourth in a row under interim coach Jeff Saturday — will serve as a stain that won’t easily be forgotten, nor should it be. This comeback will be conjured up every time a team in this league stages a sizable second-half rally.
Remember the time the Colts were up 33-0 and lost?
Wait, they really blew a 33-point lead?
No longer will the Oilers’ epic collapse against the Bills in the 1993 playoffs serve as the standard.
The 2022 Indianapolis Colts now own that unwanted distinction.
“I’ve played in this league long enough to know that a lot of different things can happen,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, who is now part of the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history and the biggest outright collapse in league history.
“Anything can happen.”
It usually does with the Colts. This team has faded miserably over the last few months, from 3-2-1 after Alec Pierce’s game-winning catch against the Jaguars in October to where they sit now, 4-9-1 and on pace to pick seventh in next spring’s draft.
It’s the same story each week, they just find a different way to lose.
“We come out guns blazing and can’t finish, or we start slow and can’t come all the way back,” Buckner said. “We just gave that ballgame away. To be honest, it’s embarrassing. On national TV like that?”
Yep. Like that.
Give them credit, this was a new one. Remember, the last time the Colts played a game, in Dallas in Week 13, they were outscored 33-0 in the fourth quarter, the widest margin in a single quarter in modern league history. Thirteen days later in Minneapolis, after racing to an incomprehensible 33-0 halftime lead — their biggest in 28 years — the Colts were outscored 39-3 after halftime, allowing the Vikings to script the biggest comeback in the history of the league.
Colts-Vikings: The amazing numbers behind the biggest comeback in NFL history
Add it up, and in the last two fourth quarters the Colts have played, they’ve been outscored 55-0.
That’s hard to do. Even for this team.
To be clear, this isn’t solely about scheme, or effort, or execution. The Colts have issues, sure, starting with a deeply flawed roster that general manager Chris Ballard built, an interim coach who isn’t qualified and an aging quarterback who’s on his last legs. But there’s more. Something’s wrong with this franchise right now, and it’s been obvious in so many second halves this season when in the games’ most crucial moments, the Colts have done nothing consistently except beat themselves.
There was an obvious tell early Saturday afternoon inside a raucous U.S. Bank Stadium, even during a first half that went entirely the Colts’ way, whistles included: Indianapolis led 33-0 despite scoring just one offensive touchdown. In 30 minutes of football, they advanced inside the Vikings’ 10-yard-line four separate times.
They ended up kicking four field goals.
Nothing changed after the break.
And yet, everything changed after the break.
The Colts punted five times and turned it over twice. Their longest drive was 31 yards. They passed for 56 yards; the Vikings threw for 399.
The Colts managed just 102 yards after halftime; the Vikings piled up 342.
“We had a chance to put it away, across the board, and we didn’t do it,” Ryan said.
Even while the defense faded, the unit still managed four sacks and an interception in the second half — more than enough for Ryan and the offense to close it out.
To no surprise, they couldn’t.
Deon Jackson fumbled. Ryan fumbled. The Vikings kept scoring. But most critical, on a fourth-and-1 with 2:31 left in regulation on Minnesota’s 36-yard-line, the Colts elected to run a QB sneak instead of trying a 53-yard field goal. It’s worth noting that earlier in the game, Chase McLaughlin — who was 5-for-5 on the day — passed Adam Vinatieri for the most field goals made by a Colt from 50 yards or longer in a season, with seven.
He’s been terrific all season, one of the bright spots amid this mess. A make from McLaughlin would’ve ended it, and saved the Colts from the embarrassment that ensued.
But no matter. Ryan didn’t convert.
The Vikings took over, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared throughout the stadium. The implosion was on.
Saturday said later he liked the call, and the chance to end it.
“We’ve converted a bunch this season, and I felt like we had the matchup we wanted. It would have closed the game out.”
The Colts, through 14 games, remain one of the worst teams in the league at converting fourth downs, ranking fifth from the bottom.
The interim head coach was less disillusioned after the game than his players, who’ve had to endure this for four grueling months. Saturday’s only been here six weeks. He vowed his halftime message was simple — “all gas, no brakes,” he actually said — when in reality, the Colts went ultra-conservative with their play calling, and it backfired terribly.
They found just four first downs after halftime. They never tested the Vikings deep. They played not to lose.
It cost them.
The Vikings went out and won it.
“We didn’t overlook them,” Saturday vowed. “We understood how explosive this offense is, how many points they put up. I’m disappointed in how we played in the second half and didn’t find a way to close this thing out, but ultimately, I told the guys in there, ‘We didn’t make enough plays, and that goes around the entire football team. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and understand when there’s opportunities to make and close teams like that out, we’ve got to make them.’ And we didn’t make them.”
The night he arrived, Saturday pledged he’d give this everything he had. He wasn’t here to weasel the Colts into better draft position. Owner Jim Irsay wanted accountability, a fresh voice to wake a sleepy team.
Nothing’s changed. A bad team’s gotten worse. The only silver lining in all of this — besides the ever-improving first-round pick — is that there are only three games left.
“Every time we lose, it stings,” Saturday said. “I look at this as no different than the other ones.”
But that’s just it — this was different, damning in so many ways, embarrassing and unfathomable and downright humiliating. This was historic, a loss that defies comprehension.
Well, maybe for most teams.
But not this one.
(Top photo: Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press)