It’s distinctly possible the cavalcade of adversity finally has caught up to the Indianapolis Colts.
The team somehow has remained in playoff contention through shocking retirements, unexpected struggles by future Hall of Famers and a litany of impactful injuries.
But when general manager Chris Ballard called a small group of media together on the sideline during Thursday’s afternoon practice, he might have delivered the final straw.
Four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton – who returned in a limited fashion for last week’s loss against the Houston Texans – won’t play Sunday.
It’s another body blow for a franchise that has suffered steady offensive attrition since quarterback Andrew Luck retired two weeks before the start of the regular season.
And the timing scarcely could be worse.
The Colts have lost three of their last four games, including the 20-17 decision at Houston that ceded control of the AFC South with five weeks remaining in the race. They find themselves in a tight wild-card competition in which they control precious few tie breakers, and this week’s matchup against the Tennessee Titans provides one of very few remaining opportunities to gain an edge.
Both teams enter the game at 6-5. The winner stays alive in the division race and gains a degree of separation within a group of four teams that open the week with the same record.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) currently own the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot. The Oakland Raiders (6-5) are next in line, followed by Indianapolis and the Titans. Each of the four has a big game this weekend.
Pittsburgh hosts the Cleveland Browns (5-6) in a game the visitors might need to win to stay in the wild-card chase. Oakland travels to the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) in a contest that could determine the AFC West champion.
No matter the results, the AFC playoff picture will look very different Monday morning than it does now.
And the Colts can’t afford to lose any more ground. Losses to Pittsburgh and Oakland leave them at a disadvantage in head-to-head tie breakers against both teams, and all five of Indy’s overall defeats have come to fellow AFC teams.
That’s important because conference record is high up the list of tie breakers against teams that have not played one another during the season.
Taken all together, the facts create an extremely low margin of error for the Colts – who finish the season with three of their final four games on the road.
Within that context, the Titans game at Lucas Oil Stadium becomes the most important game of the season. And Indianapolis is going into it short-handed.
In addition to Hilton, tight end Eric Ebron, running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Devin Funchess won’t play against Tennessee. That group represents four of the most essential offensive skill players on the roster.
Ebron’s done for the year, Funchess hasn’t played since Week 1 and faces a Wednesday deadline to be activated from injured reserve and Hilton and Mack are considered week-to-week.
If the Colts lose to the Titans – and a playoff berth becomes an even more unlikely possibility – it’s conceivable none of the four will play again this year.
Sunday is one of those backs-against-the-wall moments this franchise has excelled in over the past two seasons.
But you have to wonder if the toll of a season full of adversity has left the Colts with enough weapons to fight this battle.