INDIANAPOLIS — For the third time this season, the Colts failed to finish a game against a playoff contender.
Indianapolis coughed away a halftime lead by failing to run the ball, turning the ball over in the passing game and failing to stop Tampa Bay in the red zone in a 38-31 defeat that will leave the Colts stinging one week after a big win over the Bills.
The Colts (6-6) remain in the AFC playoff picture, but any margin for error they had left is now likely gone.
1. Colts ride passing game to the lead, then ride it into ground
Facing off against a Tampa Bay defense that came into the game ranked second in the NFL against the run, the Colts tried to establish Jonathan Taylor early, then switched to the passing game after he picked up just two yards on his first four carries.
Carson Wentz made it work for most of the first half.
Wentz turned in his best half of football, throwing three touchdown passes and staking Indianapolis to a 24-14 halftime lead. Buoyed by the way the first half went, the Colts stuck with the pass, at one point either throwing or dropping back to pass on 26 consecutive snaps.
Able to pin its ears back, the Tampa Bay defense made the Colts pay for throwing it so much.
First, Shaq Barrett beat left tackle Eric Fisher for a strip-sack of Wentz to end the first Indianapolis series out of the locker room, and on the second series of the second half, Wentz tried one of the 50-50 balls that he and Michael Pittman Jr. have had so much success on this season.
This time Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. out-jumped Pittman Jr. for the ball and made the interception, ending another series and allowing Tampa Bay to drive down and take the lead.
Indianapolis finally got back to Taylor in the fourth quarter, riding him to a game-tying touchdown, but by that point the damage had been done. Wentz completed 27 of 44 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw his second interception on a last-ditch, last-second play.
2. The turnover battle finally flipped against Indianapolis
The Colts had done a good job protecting the football this season.
Indianapolis entered Sunday’s game with just 10 giveaways this season, fewer than all but four teams in the NFL despite playing an extra game more than most teams, who have already had their bye week.
The Colts finally ended up on the wrong side of that coin Sunday.
Wide receiver Zach Pascal handed Tampa Bay its first score when he fumbled while turning up the field after the catch, the strip-sack and interception cost the Colts chances at points in the third quarter and Nyheim Hines muffed a punt to set up a field goal that stretched the Buccaneers’ lead to seven.
Indianapolis created some turnovers of its own — another Darius Leonard punch-out led to a fumble, and Isaiah Rodgers picked off Brady on a deep ball to Scotty Miller — but the four giveaways were far too much to overcome.
3. Fournette, Gronkowski and pass interference penalties
Even without Antonio Brown on the field, Brady has incredible receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but the two wideouts didn’t do much when they actually got their hands on the ball.
Godwin caught four passes for 24 yards, and Evans added three catches for 16 more.
Tampa Bay piled up yards and points by relying on its running back, Leonard Fournette, and its reliable tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski caught seven passes for 123 yards, and the passing game was helped by two critical pass interference penalties: one on a deep ball against Rock Ya-Sin, the other on a third-down incompletion in the red zone that should have led to a field goal without a pass interference on T.J. Carrie.
Fournette did the rest, carrying 17 times for 100 yards and three scores, plus catching seven passes and 31 yards for the score, then sealing the deal with a 28-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Tampa Bay Buccaneers escape with last-minute win over Colts