The Colts may be a long way from what they see as their ceiling, but they are a long way removed from the floor these days.
Saddled with an 0-2 start, the Colts have scratched and clawed their way to three consecutive wins, all within the division, and two without their star starting quarterback at the helm. The third came Thursday night, a 27-20 triumph in Houston, again with Matt Hasselbeck starting for an injured Andrew Luck.
Unlike last week's win over Jacksonville, there was never much doubt in this one for Indianapolis. Even when the Texans hit on a miracle Hail Mary to end the first half—aided by some downright comical Colts coverage—the reigning division champs refused to buckle. Indianapolis answered that score with an emphatic touchdown drive to open the third quarter, reestablishing a 10-point lead.
Three thoughts on the Thursday nighter:
1. How about Matt Hasselbeck?
The 40-year-old Colts backup QB had to check into a hospital earlier this week with a bacterial infection. Hasselbeck still felt so under the weather before the game, the NFL Network's Stacey Dales reported, that he required IVs all day and wasn't sure he would have enough energy to play four quarters.
Add in that the Colts were playing on a short week, on the road, and Hasselbeck could have been forgiven for an awful showing Thursday night.
Instead, he turned in a gem.
“It wasn't as hard as I thought before the game,” said an emotional Hasselbeck, choking back tears on the NFL Network afterward. “I honestly didn't know if I could make it through. For some unknown reason I was able to finish. I can't explain it. It was amazing.”
Bolstered by a smart game plan that mostly kept him clear of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, Hasselbeck connected on 18 of 29 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. At least a handful of his throws were highlight-reel worthy, including the one he dropped in to a streaking T.Y. Hilton to ice the game late. Hasselbeck also avoided any critical mistakes. He did get fortunate once when what an end-zone interception was wiped out by a defensive holding call.
Despite Hasselbeck's own concern over his stamina, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton did not hesitate to roll the pocket with him. Hasselbeck looked right at home on those occasions, so much so that Hamilton dialed up a fourth-and-1 rollout pass in the second quarter.
Hasselbeck connected with Andre Johnson on that play, too, one of six receptions for the former Texan on the night. Two of those grabs went for touchdowns, Johnson's first and second as a Colt.
As for Watt, sliding Hasselbeck outside the hash marks helped but the Colts also threw several blockers Watt's direction on just about every play. At the very least, Watt faced double teams whenever Hasselbeck dropped to throw; at most, the Colts chipped him with a TE, doubled him and then had a RB as a fail safe.
Clowney did manage to create a little havoc, but it was far too infrequent. Give credit to the Colts' offensive line, a maligned unit last season and again in 2015. The front helped establish Frank Gore (98 yards rushing, two shy of breaking the Colts' now 45-game drought without a 100-yard rusher) and gave Hasselbeck time. The QB played like the veteran he is.
2. The Texans are officially in disarray
Given their 1-3 start coming into this game, and Andrew Luck's injury, this was about as close to a must-win game for the Texans as a team can have in early October. They absolutely had to have this one. So the lackluster effort, at least through much of the first half, is inexcusable.
Ditto for Ryan Mallett's reactions once he took himself out of the game. After struggling through the first quarter and a half, Mallett exited after taking a shot to the ribs from Indianapolis's Sio Moore. Moore was flagged for roughing the passer.
Unfortunately for Mallett, starter-turned-backup Brian Hoyer came in and immediately sparked the offense. Houston finished that drive with a field goal for its first points of the night, then Hoyer found Jaelen Strong for a Hail Mary touchdown to end the half. Hoyer continued to play well ... right up until he threw an incomprehensible interception late in the fourth quarter.
Still, Houston almost has to stick with Hoyer now. He has been far better than Mallett over the past two weeks, and Mallett's attitude on the sideline. including leaving for the locker room before Houston kicked the extra point after Strong's Hail Mary, won't sit well with Bill O'Brien and the coaching staff.
If that were the only issue, maybe the Texans could pull it together. It's not. The defense is a ceaseless headache, as well, regardless of Watt and Clowney and Vince Wilfork up front. The overall performance from O'Brien's team wasted another standout showing by star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (11 catches for 169 yards). He needed a lot more help from his teammates.
Somehow, with its season on the brink, Houston came out unprepared Thursday night.
3. The AFC South race might be over
The Colts are just 3-2, and may very well be 3-3 after a visit from the Patriots next week. And yet, who's rising up to take them down in the division?
The Titans missed their chance to score an early upset of Indianapolis in Week 3. The Jaguars and Texans followed with their own horror shows, neither able to take advantage of Luck's absence. If no team in the South can beat the Colts when they are at their worst, how can anyone expect a changing of the guard once Indianapolis starts clicking?
At least Tennessee pushed a close-to-full-strength Colts team to the wire, losing on a failed two-point conversion in the final seconds. Jacksonville absolutely choked one away via a missed field goal last week, and Houston may be hard-pressed to find a more disappointing loss in recent franchise history than Thursday's letdown.
Indianapolis has shown quite a bit of fight the past three weeks, no matter how ugly the wins have been. There's still no way the Colts should have gone 3-0 in this stretch, not if any of their rivals had designs on stealing the division.
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