INDIANAPOLIS – At some point Sunday evening, Justin Houston undoubtedly flopped back in his recliner, dialed up the most recent highlight-filled game in his NFL career, pushed the Play button on the remote and found out how things went from perilous to euphoric in the blink of an eye so many hours earlier at NRG Stadium.
Shortly after one of the craziest endings to the latest must-win game the Indianapolis Colts had in their grasp, nearly let slip away, then sealed when Anthony Walker covered a botched snap between Houston center Nick Martin and quarterback Deshaun Watson, he had absolutely no clue. None.
The backdrop: The Texans trailed 26-20, but Watson was in the shotgun for a second-and-goal at the Indy 2. One minute, 28 seconds remaining.
Then, all hell broke loose.
“That last play, I still don’t know what really happened,’’ he said on a post-game Zoom conference call. “I’m pretty sure your view was better than mine. I was setting the edge on one side and I saw the ball on the ground and we recovered it.’’
His play-by-play hardly did the dramatic finish justice.
“It was crazy,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “That’s why it’s a 60-minute game. You’re never surprised by things that happen in this league.
“Hey, we got a break there. We made the break. Certainly take it any way we can get it.’’
Added Philip River: “That’s the way it goes sometimes. I’ve been on the other end of some of those kinda crazy endings.
“Shoot, you never apologize for those. Find a way to win them.’’
That’s precisely what the Colts did. Somehow, someway, they found a way with their defense’s back shoved up against its own end zone and, quite possibly, the team’s playoff aspirations hanging in the balance.
Watson, elusive and electric all afternoon, needed only seven plays and little more than 1 minute to take the Texans from their own 20 to the Colts’ 2-yard line.
On one area of the Colts’ sideline, Rivers and the offense were working on a possible 2-minute drive scenario in case Watson completed the drive.
“Obviously belief in the defense that they’re going to get a stop,’’ he said, “but certainly offensively we were talking about finding a way to go kick the game-winning field goal: ‘Let’s put ourselves in position.’’’
Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton kept believing in the defense.
“Our defense is pretty strong,’’ he said. “They always preach ‘They’re not in till they’re in.’’’
And the Texans never got in.
Martin’s snap to Watson was low and to the left. It slipped through Watson’s hands, and before he could locate it and cover it, defensive tackle Grover Stewart drove into him and punched the ball further back.
“I’m feeling like ‘Penetrate, try to throw the center back and get back there and mess up the play,’’’ Stewart said.
When he saw the football on the ground?
“I was like, ‘I don’t think I can get there to jump on it, so I’m going to punch it out,’’ Stewart said. “I know one of my teammates was going to get it.’’
That would be linebacker Anthony Walker, who beat end Denico Autry to the loose ball.
“I think Grove saved the play more than I did,’’ Walker said. “Him and Deshaun going down at the same time and he’s able to bat it away and then I just (saw) a lot of bodies coming.
“Great play by the defense being strong, hanging in there.’’
The reaction on the Colts’ sideline: from pending doom to utter elation.
“When it first comes out, everyone’s yelling ‘Ball!’ and we’re hoping someone jumps on it immediately,’’ rookie running back Jonathan Taylor said. “Then it kinda gets scooted out back a little more and we’re like, ‘Everyone jump on it! Jump on it!’
“Once you get it, it’s just a crazy, crazy sign of relief and it’s electric on the sideline.’’
Across the field, the Texans were stunned. J.J. Watt watched the replace and simply shook his head.
Watson sat on the ground for several seconds, clearly overcome with frustration and disappointment.
“I mean, the (expletive) hurts. I’m tired of losing,’’ he said. “Being so close over the years is just . . . yeah, I mean, it’s just tough. It’s tough.
“I know (the snap) was a little low and hot, but for me, I take big pride in just catching every snap regardless of where it is and how fast it is.’’
That’s the ending Justin Houston missed, but he fully understood how the Colts were still standing at the end.
“You never know,’’ he said. “You’ve got to play until zero-zero on the clock and I think that’s what we did.’’
With the victory, the Colts moved to 8-4 and into a tie with Tennessee atop the AFC South. A week after dominating the Colts in Indy 45-26, the Titans were overwhelmed in Nashville 41-35 by Cleveland; the Browns led 38-7 at the half before the Titans scored 28 second-half points.
Without question, the Colts remained playoff relevant with one of those Tale of Two Halves games that featured several top-level individual performances and one fourth-and-one play that fizzled badly. Consider:
- It was an offense-filled first half. The Colts piled up a season-high 24 first-half points on the strength of 236 total yards and 12 first downs. The Texans were just a step behind: 20 points, 266 total yards. On 11 first-half possessions, the AFC South rivals combined for five TDs and three field goals.
- Defenses took over after the break. The only scoring was Justin Houston’s sack/safety of Watson in the fourth quarter. The Colts managed just 135 yards in the second half and the Texans 132. Before Walker’s game-sealing fumble recovery, there was the fourth safety of Houston’s career and a Kenny Moore II interception that saw him wrestle the football away from Bradin Cooks.
- Despite playing with turf toe on his right foot, Rivers was on top of his game: 27-of-35, 285 yards, 285 yards and touchdowns to Taylor (39 yards) and Hilton (21 yards).
- Hilton continued to own the Texans and make himself right at home in Houston with eight catches, 110 yards and his second TD in as many weeks. It snapped a 23-game streak, including the playoffs, of non-100-yard games for the Colts’ four-time Pro Bowl wideout.
- Taylor was a multi-dimensional threat with 13 rushes for 91 yards and three catches for 44 yards, including the 39-yard TD when the Texans botched coverage and left him all alone in the right flats. He had 70 yards on 10 carries in the second half.
- Houston often was unblockable, finishing with 3 sacks, four tackles, including two for a loss, and the safety.
- DeForest Buckner, who missed the Titans game after testing positive for the coronavirus and being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, was just as disruptive as Houston with 2 sacks, four tackles, including two for a loss.
- In the non-highlight category, with the Colts in front 24-20 and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Houston 5 with less than 7 minutes remaining, Reich eschewed a chip-shot field goal. Nyheim Hines tested the middle of the Texans’ line and was smothered for no gain.
Offense early, defense late. Whatever it took.
“I think we found out we can win any way. We can win any way,’’ Rivers said. “We found plenty of ways to win.
“We’re going to hand in there and stick together no matter what.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.