INDIANAPOLIS – Heading into Sunday's matchup between two of the top teams in the AFC, the Colts knew in order to keep their hopes alive of capturing the divisional crown they would have to protect the football.
The turnover margin read "minus-one" for the Colts on Sunday, but where that giveaway came, along with a critical special teams mistake, forced the need for another comeback.
In trying to overcome a 20-3 second-quarter deficit, the Colts did have a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter, however, it was two plays in the first half that Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians and players pointed to for the loss.
The first came with just more than 10 minutes to go in the second quarter. The Colts took advantage of a short field thanks to their defense and drove down to the Houston one-yard line, where they faced a second-and-goal.
Running back Mewelde Moore took the handoff from quarterback Andrew Luck, but AFC sack leader J.J. Watt knocked the ball out of Moore's hands and Houston linebacker Tim Dobbins recovered at the Texans' one-yard line.
The teams subsequently traded field goals before the Colts had a three-and-out with just less than two minutes remaining in the half.
On a fourth-and-16 from the Colts' 29-yard line, Houston linebacker Bryan Braman blocked Pat McAfee's punt and picked up the loose ball, returning it eight yards into the end zone to give the Texans a 20-3 lead.
"The fumble on the goal line and the blocked punt cost us towards the end of the game because one of them was a touchdown and the other basically took a touchdown from us," running back Vick Ballard said.
"The Texans are a pretty good football team and when you make mistakes like that on the road, they come back to bite you."
Following the blocked punt, the Colts got their first touchdown of the day just two plays later when rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton caught a 61-yard scoring pass from Andrew Luck. It marked the longest play of the season for Indianapolis.
A third-quarter touchdown by tight end Dwayne Allen brought Indianapolis within six, but the Texans were able to milk much of the clock in the fourth quarter. Running back Arian Foster headed a ground assault that helped Houston control the ball for most of the final period. For the game, Houston owned the ball 33:06.
"Obviously there were a lot of mistakes by us. If you expect to win on the road in the playoff games, we have to correct them and play better as a football team," Arians said. "We thought we had momentum seized back when we got it to a one-score game. All year those are the ones we win, and we didn't win it today but there was a lot of good learning out there."
While the Colts' offense benefited from their defense holding Houston to just one touchdown on the afternoon, the unit could not sustain drives.
Houston's defense leads the NFL in third-down percentage and the Colts finished the afternoon just one-of-eight on a down on which Indianapolis normally excels.
"The Texans are a heck of a group defensively, and they did a lot of things especially up front that disrupted us on the third downs to get us off the field," tight end Dwayne Allen said. "Once we got behind the chains we were not successful."
The Colts have bounced back from each loss this season with a victory, and that will be the mindset heading into next Sunday's trip to Kansas City.