INDIANAPOLIS – The ball is bouncing the way of the Indianapolis Colts (10-4) late in this 2020 season.
For the second time in three weeks, a late fumble by the Houston Texans (4-10) was the difference, as the Colts swept their division rivals on Sunday afternoon inside of Lucas Oil Stadium.
What was learned from the Colts beating the Texans, 27-20?
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. Another Game-Changing Fumble: Wait, wasn’t that the sort of finish we saw last time the Colts/Texans met? Whatever it was, the Colts swept the Texans for the first time since the 2017 season, behind a couple of heart stopping finishes. Sunday’s performance won’t have anyone drastically thinking the Colts will be one of the last teams standing this season, but the result has them on the verge of clinching a postseason berth with another victory. While the Colts got a gift in Week 13 against the Texans, they did more to earn this one with Darius Leonard making plays that we are used to him making. With 28 seconds remaining, Leonard punched the ball out of Texans wideout Keke Coutee’s grasp and the Colts propensity to run to the football was more than rewarded with fellow linebacker Bobby Okereke pouncing on the loose ball. The strip came at the Indy 2-yard line, and with the Texans down 7 points (with a more than likely 2-point conversion attempt coming). Exhale. Again, things were far from perfect for the Colts on Sunday, but in the month of December, and in Sunday’s 4th quarter, all three phases made huge plays. A career-long 53-yard field goal by rookie Rodrigo Blankenship, a 41-yard strike from Philip Rivers to T.Y. Hilton, and then Leonard’s strip. With the possibility of a 3rd divisional loss this season, all as favorites, looking more and more possible late, the Colts made plays that were missing at this point last year. That was the message Frank Reich delivered to his team after their 10th win of the season—when the Colts needed it the most, every phase stepped up, even if the performance was far from perfect. It was a joyous Colts locker room on Sunday afternoon, but also one that knows improvement is needed to achieve bigger goals out there.
2. Hilton, Rivers Find The Chunk: When the Colts took over with 7:25 remaining in the 4th quarter, and the score tied at 20, Philip Rivers and the offense was facing one of its most important drives of the season. Rivers, himself acknowledged, that afterwards. The Indy defense had allowed 4 straight scoring drives, so some points were an absolute must to avoid a loss that would have the Colts on the outside of the playoff picture looking in right now. This was a situation the Colts hadn’t faced much in 2020—how would the offense respond needing to produce a late-game scoring drive? It was a methodical drive to start with Rivers converting a 3rd-and-2 to Trey Burton, and then Jacoby Brissett sneaking for a first down on a 4th-and-1. But after an offensive pass interference penalty, the Colts faced a 2nd-and-20 from the Houston 44-yard line with 2:28 remaining. Do you check it down and try to get in more manageable field goal range? Or do you take a shot and try to get into the end zone? Rivers and the Colts chose the first option—lining up the Texans killer, T.Y. Hilton, in the slot. With Houston playing Cover 2, and Hilton getting free release, Rivers put a strike down the middle of the field. To that point, Hilton had 3 catches for 38 yards, a very un-Hilton like stat line against the Texans. This play should go down as one of the offensive plays of the season to this point, honestly. If that ball is incomplete, the Colts are facing a 3rd-and-20, outside of field goal range, with the score tied. But Reich and company stayed aggressive and their two most accomplished offensive players delivered.
3. Timely Defensive Playmaking Saves The Day: We talked about the Leonard punching leading to the fumble a bit above, and it needs to be mentioned again. That’s the standard Matt Eberflus has of constantly getting 11 guys to the ball, showing up there. It’s Leonard’s pursuit/punch, and then the half dozen blue jerseys in the end zone, outnumbering the Texans white jerseys, to get on the ball. Before that play, you had a critical effort sack by DeForest Buckner earlier in the drive to get the Texans behind the chains. After getting kicked in the heel and twisting his ankle during a team period at Thursday’s practice, Buckner was very iffy he would play on Sunday. It wasn’t until a 10:00 AM pre-game workout that gave Buckner the green light, although his play time would be reduced to 3rd down and key situations. A hindered Buckner was a flat-out stud, piling up 3 sacks and 4 quarterback hits. Now, like we mentioned earlier, this wasn’t a great defensive performance from the Colts. However, the playmaking and big-time red zone defense has been a massive reason why the Colts have gone 3-0 to start December. Still, we are starting to see more and more leakage from the Indy defense yardage wise, and that’s something to note with the playoffs on the horizon.
4. Watson Shows Colts What Is Needed: Let’s take a second and peak at the big picture view. Seeing Deshaun Watson up close and personal this month should be another reminder to the Colts on the value of finding a franchise quarterback, and one that can make some plays with his legs, ASAP. We know Philip Rivers (who turned 39 years old earlier this month) has been an upgrade for the Colts in 2020, and he was very efficient again on Sunday (22-of-28 for 228 yards, 2 touchdowns for a passer rating of 124.4). But when you talk about the most important position in sports, and looking at the next 10 years, the Texans have an incredible talent in Watson. The Colts have a huge question mark. With below average personnel at the skill positions, Watson passed and ran for 378 and 398 yards respectively, in the two meetings against the Colts, scoring 3 total touchdowns. The ability for Watson to routinely keep plays alive is such a weapon and something that got the Texans back into this one, despite being down 14-0. You can’t stress enough how much better Rivers has been at the QB position, compared to what the Colts had last year. But we also can’t undermine how important it remains for the Colts to find that future QB (and one who can move a little) very soon.
5. One More Win? Currently, the Colts have a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 39 percent chance to win the AFC South with two games remaining in the regular season. With the division, the only true hope is for the Colts (10-4) to win out (at Pittsburgh, Jacksonville) and have the Titans (10-4) lose one of their final two games (at Packers, at Texans). For the Wild Card, the Colts can clinch one of those three spots by winning out, or with getting some help from the Browns (10-4, at Jets, Steelers), Dolphins (9-5, at Raiders, at Bills) and/or Ravens (9-5, Giants and at Bengals). As long as the Colts have a better record than one of those three teams at the end of the season, they’ll make the playoffs. If they are tied with them though, the tiebreaker situations are not favorable right now. If the Colts split their last two games, they would need the Ravens and Dolphins to win out, and the Browns to win 2 of 3, for Indy to miss the playoffs. The Colts would travel to Buffalo, if the playoffs started today. All of this is just another reminder of how vitally important Sunday’s win, over a divisional/conference opponent, was for the Colts. Had they lost, they would currently be outside of the playoff race. Now, they are another step closer to getting into the dance, and then who knows what’ll happen.
–Injury Report: The Colts had the following players inactive on Sunday: QB-Jacob Eason, WR-Dezmon Patmon, CB-Tremon Smith, OT-Will Holden, WR-DeMichael Harris. Wide receiver Marcus Johnson (quad) left the game in the 1st quarter and did not return.
-Key Stat: Rodrigo Blankenship made a career-long 53-yard field goal on Sunday afternoon. His previous long was just 44 yards.
–What’s Next: The Colts (10-4) will have their final road game of the season next Sunday, taking a trip to take on Pittsburgh (11-2) at 1:00 PM.