The Indianapolis Colts earned the opportunity to face the AFC South Division champion Houston Texans on Saturday afternoon in the AFC playoffs after qualifying for the postseason with a convincing 33-17 road win at Tennessee on Sunday night.
The Colts (10-6), just the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 1-5, split season meetings with the Texans. Each team won on the road, the Colts most recently 24-21 on Dec. 9. The Texans won 37-34 in overtime on Sept. 30 in Indianapolis.
“Everybody wanted to write us off, but we stuck with it,” said tight end Eric Ebron. “Bring on Houston.”
“We did it,” first-year Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “We did something that only two other teams have done. But we’re not done yet.”
When assessing how the Colts were able to stay the course under Reich, the first obvious reason is this team’s most-talented leader, quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts passer improved to 11-0 against the Titans with 285 passing yards and three TDs to wide receiver Dontrelle Inman, Ebron and tight end Ryan Hewitt.
Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was sporting a T-shirt that read: "I'm a great believer in LUCK."
A Colts offensive line kept him clean, too, allowing only one sack, and opening holes for second-year running back Marlon Mack to rush for 119 yards and one score.
A Colts defense led by rookie NFL leading tackler Darius Leonard came up with two interceptions to put this game away. Leonard, “The Maniac,” had one of them.
The defense also didn’t let Titans workhorse running back Derrick Henry take over this game. He rushed for 93 yards on 16 carries, but it continued the Colts’ streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher this season.
The Titans (9-7), missing three key defensive regulars as well as injured quarterback Marcus Mariota, struggled from the outset against Luck, who threw two quick touchdown passes to cap 92- and 90-yard scoring drives for a 14-0 lead.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for quite a long time now,” Luck said. “We’re just excited to have another opportunity and get to go play again.”
The Colts stumbled at times with two turnovers including a Luck pick-six. Twelve penalties for 96 yards included two that negated touchdown runs.
But the closest the Titans got in the second half was 24-17, then Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II intercepted Blaine Gabbert to set up a short scoring drive and an Adam Vinatieri 25-yard field goal.
After the Titans were unable to move the ball late from deep in their territory, the Colts shortest scoring drive required only one play as Mack scored on an 8-yard TD run.
Leonard, who had a team-high eight tackles, finished matters with his interception.
“It means everything,” Ebron said. “Ninety-five percent of the league is going home.”
Luck, who went to high school in Houston, was unaware the Texans would be the Colts’ playoff opponent until NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya mentioned the matchup in her on-field, postgame interview.
After missing last season due to shoulder surgery and watching his Colts struggle to 4-12, Luck is much like his team. Both have come a long way back. And he couldn’t be happier to have another Houston homecoming.
“I do think in the locker room that we understand we have something special going on,” Luck said.