Wheels on bus rolling down losing road; is U-turn ahead?

There are still reports of random tires rolling down Interstate 10 near Jacksonville today.

Not to worry, says the highway patrol, it is just the wheels coming off the Colts’ bus. Indeed, it may be some time before all that clanks, sputters and chokes on what used to be the Indianapolis football machine can be found, much less repaired.

How can you begin to explain all that went wrong in a 42-point second-half thrashing by the Jags en route to a 51-16 final?

Complete collapse seems so inadequate. This was a second-half surrender.

Let’s put that in perspective. It was the first Colts loss in the division in more than 1,000 days.

This is Jacksonville, the beleaguered doormat of the AFC. It is a guaranteed win day for Indy no matter the circumstances. Sixteen division wins in a row and this should have been one more.

“Back to the drawing board,” defensive end Robert Mathis told ESPN. The veteran scored Indy’s lone touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone.

“You never want to let a team score 50 points on you. Jacksonville is a lot better football team than what we saw the first time,” Mathis said. “The last time we got stomped like this was in 2006, and we went on to win the Super Bowl.

“You can climb from the depths, from the bottom of the valley all the way up the mountaintop. It can be done. That’s what I’ve told the guys. It can be done.”

Mathis’ history lesson is correct. Indy lost 44-17 at Jacksonville in Week 14 during the 2006 Super Bowl year.

If it can be done, then there is no better time than Sunday, when those somehow-first-place Colts host co-leader Houston.

There is a lot to fix and few spare parts.

Andrew Luck is hurt, and now backup Matt Hasselbeck is questionable. The defense could not rush a fraternity party.

Even at their worst, the Colts are still better than the Jags. Indeed, it looked like another grinding win for Indy was possible, who took a 13-9 halftime lead.

But Chuck Pagano’s team is sputtering like an old Bluebird with a clogged carburetor.

The wheels on the bus are supposed to go round and round, my grandkids remind me. Not the Colts’ bus. Nothing goes around the way it should.

Injuries, special team misplays and interceptions all undid Indy in rapid succession. Throw in a defense that looked like it was playing Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles in the fantasy football pool, and all the ingredients of a disaster came together.

Still, here we are, in the aftermath of the worst second half of football perhaps ever by the Indianapolis version of this franchise. And yet, the Colts still sit in first place in the dismal AFC South. That’s first place with a losing record, mind you, but it is still first place.

Location, location, location.

“We need to find that switch and hit it,” Mathis said. “We’re still digging, still clawing. When you win, everything’s all right. When you lose, all hell breaks loose. We’ve just got to keep fighting. I’m not embarrassed because Jacksonville has pro players. Angry and disappointed? I would say that because I know we’re a helluva lot better than what we showed today.”

Better? Almost certainly. With Luck’s imminent return, Indy is good enough to hold off the Texans and make the playoffs.

How far can this Colts’ team go? Can they return to the form that beat Denver just a few weeks back? All that seems quite remote at this point.

This much is certain. The wheels are off the bus. This team cannot play much worse than it did Sunday.

Maybe there is comfort to be found. Everything that can go wrong has done so.

The wheels are off, the transmission is clanking, and we’re not even sure who will be driving Sunday against the Texans in the most important game of the year.

But somehow, the Colts still find themselves in first place and in control of their playoff destiny. Three very winnable games remain with sub-.500 Houston, Miami and Tennessee.

If Pagano can figure out a way to put the wheels back on this Colts bus, this sputtering, backfiring team may be going to the playoffs.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.