HOUSTON — The Indianapolis Colts improved to 7-6 on the season Sunday with their 24-21 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
The Colts, at least offensively, didn't exactly come out swinging from the start, punting on their first four possessions and then throwing an interception on their fifth, but thanks to a stingy defensive effort, Indy got on track from there, going touchdown, touchdown, field goal and touchdown on its next four drives, and flying home having snapped the Texans' nine-game win streak as well as staying alive in the playoff hunt.
"Wow, what a win on the road," Colts head coach Frank Reich said after the game. "Come in here on the road, we know hostile environment against the hottest team in the NFL. What we talked about was just the feeling of confidence, there was a feeling of confidence all week, there was a feeling of confidence on our trip here, in the meetings last night. I think what was best about this was we expected to win this game, we really did. And the guys just hung tough."
Here are the FIVE THINGS LEARNED from Sunday's victory over the Texans:
• NO REPEAT: The Colts' offense was among the best in the league during the team's five-game winning streak — that was, until last Sunday's 6-0, shutout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Against one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Colts just couldn't get anything going and, coupled with some poor execution on three different failed attempts to move the chains or get into the end zone on fourth down, Indy looked nothing like the team that had frequently scored in the 30s and had an MVP candidate at quarterback. On Sunday in Houston, against another top-notch defensive unit, the Colts had a similar start, with the aforementioned punts on their first four possessions, and then an interception on their fifth. But that all changed on Indianapolis' sixth possession, when Andrew Luck connected with T.Y. Hilton for a 60-yard bomb on the first play, followed by a four-yard touchdown run by Marlon Mack on the second. All of a sudden, things were just simply back on track for the Colts' offense, which scored three touchdowns and a field goal on its next four possessions. "We got to the second quarter and it started with the big play to T.Y. (Hilton). It really did. We needed that," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "And Marlon's (Mack) sticking it in there, and then tempo, it helped. It helped." Luck finished his day with 399 passing yards — the fourth-most in a single game in his career — while Hilton continued his dominance in Houston, catching nine passes for 199 yards, including receptions of 60, 34, 29, 28 and 19 yards.
• CLAMPS, ACTIVATED: Unfortunately for the Colts, the shutout loss last week to the Jaguars overshadowed what was a dominant performance for their defense, which made plenty of plays up front and in the secondary, and certainly played its part by only allowing two measly field goals. The key for this Indy defense all season, however, has been: can you do it on a week-to-week basis? That's an even tougher task considering how explosive the Texans' offense had been during its nine-game winning streak — particularly on the ground. But the Colts answered the call once again in this area on Sunday. With its offense getting off to a slow start, Indy's defense answered the call, forcing three-and-outs on four of Houston's first seven drives, and two other drives during that span featured just one first down before the Texans were forced to punt. That gave the Colts' offense time to get things figured out and start putting points up on the board. And after allowing 37 points and 466 yards of offense back in their Week 4 overtime loss to Houston, a prideful Indianapolis defense gave up just 21 points and 315 yards Sunday, and truly led the way for a second straight week. Among the highlights: the Texans came into the game third in the NFL in rushing, averaging 140 yards per game on the ground; the Colts held them to just 89 yards on Sunday. Also, defensive tackle/end Denico Autry continues his tear, as he logged another two sacks against the Texans. That gives Autry five sacks in two games, and he now has 8.0 on the season — all against AFC South opponents (four against the Texans, three against the Jaguars and one against the Titans).
• RECORD BREAKER: Back in 2007, the reigning Super Bowl champion Colts were rolling once again, as a tight end from Iowa, who had been very solid in his first four years in the league, absolutely took off. Dallas Clark caught a career-best 11 touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in a season in which he'd see his total targets and receptions nearly double from years past. This season, another tight end for the Colts is absolutely taking off in his fifth season in the league. Eric Ebron, the former 10th-overall selection by the Detroit Lions in the 2014 NFL Draft, has more than settled in his new home, and on Sunday, he caught his 12th touchdown pass of the season, passing Clark for the most in a single season by a Colts tight end in franchise history. Ebron, who also has a rushing touchdown on the year, has 58 total receptions for 654 yards; his 12 receiving touchdowns, meanwhile, are tied with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams for the league lead.
• PLAYOFF PICTURE: The Texans' nine-game win streak was sparked by their dramatic overtime victory Week 4 in Indianapolis, so of course it's nice for the Colts to be able to put an end to all that in front of Houston's home crowd. But, of course, the most important result coming out of Sunday's game is the fact the Colts, at 7-6, remain right smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt as the season enters Week 15. In fact, thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs' defeat of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the Colts are now one of four teams (Colts, Ravens, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans) tied for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. Due to tiebreakers, if the season ended today, the Ravens would be advancing to the postseason, but fortunately for the Colts — whose playoff chances improved from 13 percent on Sunday morning to 32 percent by Sunday evening, according to ESPN — the season does not end today. If the team can keep advancing on its "going 1-0 every week" mindset, then it will have put itself in prime position to enter postseason play for the first time since advancing to the AFC Championship Game in 2014. Oh, and just for good measure, the Colts and Titans are now two games back in the AFC South race. Just three games remain, obviously, but as we know in this division, anything can happen.
• NOTES OF INTEREST:
— With his 199 yards receiving, Hilton broke his tie with Marvin Harrison (11) for the most 150 yards receiving games in team history.
— Ebron now has 13 total touchdowns on the season and is tied with Vernon Davis, Tyler Eifert, and Antonio Gates for the third-most scrimmage touchdowns by a tight end in a single season.
— Autry had four tackles (three solo), 2.0 sacks, 2.0 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. Autry now has 8.0 sacks on the season and 5.0 in his last two games. He is the first Colt since Robert Mathis in 2013 to register 2.0 sacks or more in two straight games.
See all the action on the field at NRG Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts face the Houston Texans in a pivotal AFC South showdown.