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For the better part of 2019, the Indianapolis Colts hung over the Houston Texans like the grey storm cloud perpetually hovering over resident sadboy Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh—dissipating now and then but always returning at the most inopportune moments to spoil the fun and the mood with a chilly shower. It began during the Wild Card round in January, with Indianapolis storming into Houston, jumping out to a 21-0 lead by the second quarter and never looking back, with Andrew Luck tossing two touchdowns to continue his long-awaited triumphant return. The clouds parted for a moment when Luck unexpectedly retired before the season and Houston ascended into the divisional favorite position with the Colts surely left for dead without their star signal caller. Fast forward to Week 7, and the sky drew dark yet again, led this time by Jacoby Brissett and a revitalized Indy team that once again jumped out to an early lead and held on to take control of the AFC South.
Luckily for the Texans, they had one more opportunity to produce a warm front, and they took advantage. Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller spearheaded a Houston aerial attack that produced a second half surge good enough to defeat the Colts 20-17 on Thursday night at NRG Stadium for the Texans’ first win over Indianapolis since Week 4 of 2018.
Unlike many prior ugly TNF matchups this season, this one was a defensive struggle in the early going that morphed into a stylistic battle by the second half, with Houston taking to the air as the Colts forged ahead on the ground. There were only seven combined penalties, two total sacks and one turnover, a remarkable feat for teams playing on three days’ rest. Time of possession and first downs gained went to Indy by slim margins, both teams produced nine drives apiece, and each squad converted at least 50% of their third downs. It was a clean, even game by most measures, and it all came down to which approach and players proved more potent.
The Texans won out behind their pass-happy stars, as Watson completed 19 of 30 for 298 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 104.6 passer rating. His only real mistake of the night came on an ill-advised throw over the middle late in the second quarter that turned into an athletic tip-drill interception for Kenny Moore and three points for the Colts. Other than that, the Clemson product bounced back nicely from his worst outing as a pro against Baltimore, totaling 11 passing first downs and posting a solid 9.6 yards per pass. Hopkins, owner of one of the softest pairs of hands on planet Earth, did his thing to the tune of six catches for 94 yards and two more touchdown balls destined for his mother’s trophy room. But Houston’s leading receiver was Will Fuller V, back in pads for the first time since that Week 7 loss in Indiana. He nabbed seven receptions for 140 yards including a 51-yard bomb during which he raced past Moore and hooked onto the end of Watson’s best throw of the night.
Defensively, Houston bounced back from Sunday’s Lamar Jackson-fueled 41-point onslaught to allow just 129 yards through the air and 175 on the ground to a potent Colts rushing attack without the services of Texan talisman, J.J. Watt. Zach Cunningham was anywhere and everywhere the Texans needed him, netting 13 solo tackles and 16 combined takedowns. Benardrick McKinney led the way from the secondary with 11 combined tackles while banished ex-Buccaneer Vernon Hargreaves chipped in 5 combined of his own to go with a pass defended in his Houston debut for a banged-up secondary that needed his services desperately.
For the Colts, it was a tough one to drop. A win likely would have salted the division away for Indy. Head coach Frank Reich made two interesting decisions in this one; the first came just before halftime after Brissett found Jack Doyle at the Houston 18 for a first down with 20 seconds to go. Rather than call a timeout and take a sideline shot (or two) at the end zone, Reich opted to play it safe, run the clock down, call his final timeout and take the three points. Far from a game-losing decision, of course, but a questionable move nonetheless. Reich’s second brow-raiser came with his call to go for it on fourth-and-7 with 3:05 to go. The Colts had three timeouts in their pocket but burned one before trying and failing to get to the sticks. Perhaps with the cautious call from the first half pecking away at his conscience, Reich gambled and lost. Again, it was not a mind-numbingly stupid or game-losing decision, and a risk many coaches would take. But in a game decided by three points, burning a timeout and setting the Texans up at midfield instead of pinning them deep with a full battery of clock stoppers wound up sealing Indy’s fate.
Brissett was passable through the air, going 16 of 25 for 129 yards and a 76.9 rating. Once again, the Colts found most of their offensive success running the ball (this time without an injured Marlon Mack) as Jonathan Williams rumbled for 104 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Nyheim Hines chipped in nine carries for 59 yards while Brissett added 20 on four carries of his own, including the game’s first six points. Indianapolis ran 18 total plays on their two touchdown drives, with 17 of those plays being runs. Eric Ebron led the way through the air with four catches for 44 yards (including several big third down conversions), but T.Y. Hilton struggled mightily against a team he usually dominates. In his first action since Week 8, Hilton mustered three catches for 18 yards but had two drops (both on third down) on contested balls that hit his hands before falling to the turf.
On the flipside, a depleted Colts secondary simply couldn’t match the top-end speed and talent of Fuller and Hopkins. Down cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin and Shakial Taylor as well as safety Khari Willis, Indy’s last line of defense eventually wore down with a huge blown coverage on Hopkins’ first touchdown and losses in key one-on-one matchups on Nuk’s second six and Fuller’s 51-yarder. The line generated enough pressure to contain the run (99 total rushing yards for the Texans) but not quite enough to make life hectic for Watson (one sack, four QB hits). The Colts’ injury-depleted D simply lacked the talent to stop Houston’s most potent offensive weapons.
Hopkins said before the game he began thinking ahead to Thursday night in the fourth quarter of the Ravens debacle, calling the divisional showdown “the biggest game of the year so far.” He was right. The Texans won a crucial game that was important not only in terms of playoff positioning, but in terms of finally getting past the Colts.
So, rest easy tonight, Eeyore. The sun should keep shining for the next few weeks.
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