HOUSTON — Nobody, and I mean nobody, has experienced the Indianapolis Colts tying a game. Until today.
The Colts' 20-20 tie with the Houston Texans – the franchise's first since 1982 – left the team feeling mostly incomplete and disappointed as they departed the visiting locker room at NRG Stadium. It's not an easy thing to digest in a sport that's otherwise cut-and-dry – the Colts didn't lose their season opener for the first time since 2013, but also didn't win their season opener for the first time since 2013.
"We didn't lose, but we didn't win," wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. "It just feels weird."
"You never want to walk into a game even thinking about a tie," wide receiver Parris Campbell added.
But the Colts' goal was to go 1-0 this week, head coach Frank Reich said, and that was not accomplished. Reich and his players lamented the self-inflicted mistakes – many of which were drive-killers – that caused the Colts to fall behind, 20-3, early in the fourth quarter.
"Just can't start slow, man," center Ryan Kelly said. "That we went down 20-3 — they're a good team, but we shot ourselves in the foot a lot of times."
"We just can't shoot ourselves in the foot early so we don't have to exert so much energy coming back," tight end Mo Alie-Cox said.
Two plays stood out in the first half: One a self-inflicted mistake, and the other a credit to head coach Lovie Smith's defense.
Ryan took accountability for the interception he threw targeting Taylor on a screen. Veteran defensive end Jerry Hughes was engaged with right tackle Braden Smith when Ryan went to drop the ball to Taylor, who had daylight in front of him with the Colts just outside the Texans' red zone in the second quarter. Hughes made a fantastic play to get the ball into his hands, but Ryan felt like it was a throw he should've completed.
"It sucks because it was a really good call," Ryan said. "I think we had action. I think we had it set up pretty good. I've got to find a better passing lane. I've got to find a way to make that completion."
Earlier in the second quarter, the Colts drove to the Texans' two-yard line to set up a fourth and goal. Already with a 3-0 lead, Reich – who's had success as an aggressive fourth down play caller, especially in the low red zone – felt like the worst that would happen is the Colts wouldn't get the first down, but Houston would be backed up deep and have to punt, which would set up a short drive for a field goal to go up 6-0.
Reich tapped a play the Colts have executed well on the goal line – a direct snap to running back Nyheim Hines, who runs a zone-read with running back Jonathan Taylor.
"They had their defensive end do something that messed with us," Reich said. "He gave us a false indicator, something we had not seen from them, so that's really a credit to Lovie Smith. They out-coached us and out-played us on that play."
The Texans then drove 69 yards on 14 plays to connect on a game-tying field goal.
And after Ryan's interception later in the quarter, Houston got in the end zone with a four-play, 58-yard drive aided by a 33-yard pass interference penalty assessed to cornerback Kenny Moore II.
Eventually, Houston jumped out to a 20-3 lead when quarterback Davis Mills found tight end O.J. Howard for a 22-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter.
But behind the Colts' slow start were some encouraging things. The offense only had two three-and-outs the entire game, and even while it was only putting three points on the board in the first three quarters, the Colts were extending drives and giving themselves chances to score.
"We got to be able to finish drives," head coach Reich said. "But we had 200 yards of offense in the first half — that's doing something right. But that's not what wins games.
"… There were mistakes that stopped drives that aren't good enough. So ultimately that's a reflection on me, and I take ownership of that."
The Colts punched back hard in the fourth quarter, though, taking the success they had on offense earlier and eliminating those self-inflicted mistakes. This was all while the defense kept the score close enough – and then got the ball back to the offense when blitzing linebacker E.J. Speed slugged Mills for a strip-sack deep in the heart of Texans territory.
Taylor punched in a two-yard touchdown after Speed's takeaway to get the Colts within a score, and after a short Texans possession ended in a punt, Reich turned to his unanimous first-team AP All-Pro running back and let him go to work. Taylor gained 49 yards on four consecutive run plays before the two-minute warning, then after the break Ryan found Michael Pittman Jr. on a well-executed play action pass for a 15-yard, game-tying touchdown.
"It's a great feeling to know how we could storm back with 10 or 11 minutes left," Hines said. "That's amazing to see that we can come back down 20 and have a chance to put ourselves in the game, because a lot of times you put yourself in that position, you can't win."
The Colts made it near midfield after a quick Texans three-and-out before their drive stalled and the game wound up in overtime.
That's when Rodrigo Blankenship missed what would've been a game-winning 42-yard field goal.
But the Colts didn't view Blankenship's miss as some siloed-off event that solely determined the outcome of the game. Avoiding those mistakes and penalties (seven for 89 yards) that put the Colts behind by 17 in the first place could've eliminated the need for a game-winning kick in overtime.
"It's not any one play," Reich said. "There's obviously a lot of plays in the game so we're not pointing to the missed field goal in overtime. There were plenty of mistakes throughout that game where we could've sealed it and we didn't."
The Colts averaged 5.7 yards per play and gained 517 yards of offense – yet scored just 20 points. They became only the 17th team in NFL history to have more than 515 yards of offense while scoring 20 or fewer points; teams are now 2-12-3 when hitting those marks.
"When you gain those kind of yards, you got to score 40 points," Reich said. "You can't walk away with 20 points. With that much offense, that's not near good enough."
But this is all to say the way the Colts played on offense does give them confidence for where the 2022 season is headed. Taylor was a menace, Pittman had a 100-yard game and Ryan's leadership shined even as things looked bleak in Week 1.
And there's a sense of belief that those self-inflicted mistakes – the ones that led to this weird feeling after a tie – can not only be fixed, but fixed quickly.
"The effort across the board to me is encouraging," Ryan said. "If we play with that kind of intensity, clean up some of these mistakes and just execute a little better, there's a lot of things that we can build on.
I think if we stay the course, continue to have the mindset that we've had, continue to play with the effort that we played with, we're going to tighten these things up and I think we're going to be better for it."