HOUSTON —The implications heading into Thursday night's road clash with the Houston Texans were crystal clear to the Indianapolis Colts.
Fly home with a win, and you have a stranglehold on the AFC South Division standings heading into the final month of the season. A loss, though, really puts you behind the eight ball in terms of possible playoff seeding the rest of the way.
And in what ended up being a back-and-forth battle at NRG Stadium, the Texans were simply able to make a few more big plays than the Colts — particularly on the offensive side of the ball — as they handed Indy a 20-17 loss that drops its record to 6-5 on the year.
"Tough road loss — a division loss," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "I thought our guys prepared very hard, came in here and played against against a good football team on the road, Thursday night. We knew it was a big game, we knew what was at stake, and I thought we fought hard.
"We just wanted to hang in there, and we had chances at the end; we didn't make enough plays in any of the phases to come as a winner tonight."
A look at the boxscore from Thursday night's game would likely indicate a different end result for the Colts. Indianapolis stuck to its run-the-ball mantra on offense to the tune of 39 carries for 175 yards on the ground — an average of 4.5 yards per carry; the team was an impressive 9-of-15 (60 percent) on third down, and 2-for-3 in the red zone; the Colts had just three penalties on the night; and they won the turnover battle.
But in a game that featured two ties and six lead changes, it would come down to the big plays that the Texans (7-4) were able to make — and that the Colts simply struggled to find on their end.
While Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson was able to find All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for two big touchdown passes, the Indy offense couldn't ever get its own pass game going against a Texans defense mostly sitting back in soft zone coverages.
Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett completed just 16-of-25 passes for 129 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a passer rating of 76.9; he had no completed passes further than 14 yards on the night.
"You know, I'm gonna have to go back and look at the tape. We had a few shots called here or there; we just were not clicking," Reich said. "They mixed up their coverages — as I said, they played a little bit more zone, we were anticipating them playing a little bit of man, but it was fine. I mean, we always have zone beaters in all of our man stuff, so it wasn't anything that caught us off guard, they just seemed to have a few things covered."
Thursday night's result was a far cry from the Colts' Week 7 victory over the Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium, when Brissett earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after setting career-highs with 326 passing yards, four passing touchdowns and a 126.7 passer rating in the Colts' 30-23 victory.
In that previous matchup, the Colts used a heavy dose of effective crossing patterns to break free against a man coverage-heavy Texans secondary. But it was a totally different story on Thursday night. Brissett oftentimes seemed to get all the way through his progressions before going to the open man underneath for small-to-moderate gains; taking big shots down the field, though the team tried a couple of them, just wasn't in the cards in this one, he said.
"I mean, when we were throwing the ball they were forcing us to take the underneath stuff, and we were taking the underneath stuff and we were still gaining yards on the short completions. But that was their mindset; that's what they wanted us to do," Brissett said. "And it's the discipline of throwing it, because, you know, you force something just 'cause you feel like you need to make a play, then you don't have a chance at the end of the game to still be in it, you know? So that's what they were forcing us to do."
One factor affecting the Colts' passing game on Thursday night was the availability of top wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Playing in his first game since suffering a calf injury in practice on Oct. 30, Hilton was on bit of a pitch count; he was targeted six times in all and had three receptions for 18 yards on the night.
Hilton came into the game averaging more than 130 receiving yards in his previous seven games played at NRG Stadium.
"They had pretty much told me 20 to 30 snaps would be what would be kind of the recommended snap count for him. And he was feeling a little bit tight, from what I understand. So we had to be smart about it," Reich said of Hilton. "But he was willing to go in there — I give him credit; he wanted to be on the field. We knew even if we could get him on the field for 20 to 30 plays, some of it was just as a decoy; hopefully they would roll the coverage to him or do something like that and give us a chance to run it a little bit better. So that was part of the plan."
While it's the Texans that are now in good position in the divisional standings the rest of the way, the Colts aren't throwing in the towel by any means. They've got five games left, starting with their Week 13 home game against the Tennessee Titans, to make a late-season run to get back into the playoff picture.
And once you're in, anything can happen.
"You know, we're far from being out of this thing," Reich said, when asked what his message to the team was after Thursday night's game. "The way this was billed, this was a playoff game atmosphere. Obviously it was a good opportunity for us to take sole possession, and then have a sweep on Houston. It didn't work out that way, and then we have some other AFC losses, so that wouldn't look good. But there's five games left, and so the message is our focus is win the next one.
"That's all that matters — 1-0. Win the next game," Reich continued. "There's plenty of football left. The message also was we've got the guys in this room to do that. We got the guys in the room to do this. We're playing good up front on both sides of the ball; we can go as far as we wanna go."