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Colts take first step on ‘4-0 vision’ by cooling Texans, 24-21

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 09: Eric Ebron #85 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates a touchdown reception against the Houston Texans in the second quarter at NRG Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The long-range view is there, motivating a team that entered the season in serious rebuild mode, and was mentioned in the hours leading up to the Indianapolis Colts’ latest win-or-else game.

Listen to Frank Reich, whose outfit shrugged off a dismal performance seven days earlier at Jacksonville with arguably their best win of the season Sunday at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Colts 24, Texans 21.

Next up: Dallas next Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Right now what we’re focused on is next week, as you would expect me to say,’’ Reich said in his post-game press conference. “That’s really all that matters.’’

But there’s so much more. While snapping Houston’s NFL-best nine-game winning streak, the Colts also breathed life into their postseason hopes. At 7-6, they’re tied with Baltimore, Tennessee and Miami for the AFC’s final wild-card spot. The Ravens hold the tiebreaker with a better conference record.

For now.

“Yes,’’ Reich conceded, “we talked about it before this last game. We do have a goal of going 4-0 in the fourth quarter (of the season).

“That is a goal. That’s our goal. That’s the vision. But our approach is still 1-0 every week.’’

The vision remains because Reich’s Colts overcame an inefficient start by the offense – third-down drops by tight ends Eric Ebron and Erik Swoope sabotaged two first-quarter drives – and dominated the Texans more than the final score indicates.

“Wow, what a win on the road . . . hostile environment against the hottest team in the NFL,’’ Reich said.

And after getting absolutely stoned a week earlier in Jacksonville. The 6-0 loss was the first time an Andrew Luck-led offense had been shut out since his prep days at Houston’s Stratford H.S.

Yet the Colts entered NRG Stadium with a spring in their step.

“It was just a feeling of confidence all week,’’ Reich said. “There was a feeling of confidence on our trip here, in the meetings last night.

“What was best about this is we expected to win this game, we really did.’’

Credit a rising defense for keeping things close while Luck and the offense were muddling along with 31 yards and zero first down on 12 first quarter plays. It limited the Texans 315 total yards and harassed Deshaun Watson with 5 sacks.

“Defense did a great job of not letting the game get away,’’ Luck said.

Credit the offense for finally getting its act together.

Credit Luck and T.Y. Hilton for going off and scorching Houston’s 10th-ranked defense. Luck finished with 399 yards and touchdowns to Ebron and Zach Pascal. Hilton further entrenched himself as Public Enemy No. 1 in Houston, exploiting the Texans’ coverage for nine catches and 199 yards on 12 targets. It was the seventh time in 14 games he’s eclipsed 100 yards against Houston and the third-highest output of his career.

“Throughout the week we noticed some things where we thought we could take advantage of T.Y.’s speed and his maneuverability,’’ Luck said.

Credit Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni for opting to put the offense into up-tempo mode in the second quarter.

“We felt like we needed a little boost,’’ Reich said.

“Yeah, tempo helped,’’ Luck agreed.

The Colts still trailed 7-0 and things weren’t exactly on the uptick after Luck suffered an interception when one of his passes – slightly high – went through the hands of Zach Pascal and was intercepted by safety Andre Hal.

But after the defense again stiffened and forced a punt, things finally started clicking. After the interception, Luck brought his “A’’ game the rest of the afternoon: 18-of-25, 327 yards, two TDs, a 140.8 passer rating.

On first-and-10 from the Indy 36, Hilton lined up wide left and ran a deep post against Justin Reid. He got a step on the rookie safety and ran under Luck’s pass for a 60-yard gain. The next play, Marlon Mack powered in from the 4.

Colts 7, Texans 7. And there was so much more to come.

“Once we got that first one, it was like, ‘OK, yeah, here we go. Let’s get it,’’’ Luck said. “When T.Y. is in a zone, man, it’s fun to play with him.’’

The Colts would rattle off 17 answered points for a 17-7 halftime lead. After the Texans closed to within 17-14 with a TD drive to open the third quarter, Luck had the perfect answer. He drove the 75 yards in 8 plays, and capped it with a 12-yard TD to Zach Pascal.

Houston narrowed the gap to 24-21 with 2:37 to play, but any thoughts of a comeback were doused on third-and-1 at the Indy 48 with 2 minutes to play.

Luck used a hard count, hoping to entice a Texans defender to jump offside. When that didn’t immediately happen, he tried again.

“I was very close to calling a timeout,’’ Luck said, “but I said, ‘Oh, I’ll give it one more go.’’’

Jadeveon Clowney couldn’t help himself. He lurched forward.

Penalty. First down. Game over.

Just like that, the Colts put a forgettable game behind them and gave themselves a reason to look ahead, and hope.

Moving on from the Jacksonville game, though, took more than a few minutes.

“Let me tell you as an offensive coach, after you throw up a goose-egg, it’s a long week and there’s a lot of pressure on the next week,’’ Reich said. “Then you start off the way we started off was not what we were hoping for.

“But guys believed. We have good players. We’ve got a great quarterback. We’ve just gotta keep fighting and believing.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.