INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Jim Irsay was having flashbacks.
“Everyone remembers ’95,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ exuberant owner said outside his team’s locker room Saturday evening at NRG Stadium. “We remember other times, big playoff wins on the road.
“Couldn’t be happier, man. What a great win. Tough thing to win by two touchdowns.’’
Tough to do Saturday against the Houston Texans, but that’s what Irsay’s Colts did: 21-7.
Tough to do nearly a quarter-century ago when Irsay’s Colts opened the first round of the 1995 postseason at San Diego, but they stunned the Chargers 35-20.
The similarities are undeniable.
They’re the only two teams in franchise history to secure a playoff berth with a win in the final game of the regular season.
They took authoritative first steps by leaning on a relentless running game and running back making his first postseason appearance. In ’95, rookie Zach Crockett burst on the scene with a then-team record 147 rushing yards against the Chargers. Saturday, Marlon Mack 1-upped Crockett – literally – with 148 yards as the Colts set a postseason record with 200 yards on the ground.
“Playoff football,’’ Frank Reich said. “We came into this game saying we need to dominate up front . . . we need to run the football and we need to stop the run.
“To roll off 200 yards on that defense is unbelievable. That’s a real credit to the offensive line and our running backs and tight ends.’’
They did it with a quarterback who passed for two touchdowns and one interception. Against the Chargers, it was Jim Harbaugh, who managed 175 yards as Crockett’s co-star. Saturday, it was Andrew Luck, who finished with a modest 222 yards, but set the tone for the day with 192 yards and touchdowns to Eric Ebron and Dontrelle Inman as the Colts seized control with a 21-0 halftime lead.
And then there’s the most intriguing aspect of ’95 and now.
The reward for carving out a road victory: an AFC Divisional match-up at No. 1 seed Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium. Irsay’s ’95 Colts were double-digit underdogs, but stunned the 13-3 Chiefs and the NFL 10-7 in the coldest game in franchise history to advance to the AFC Championship game.
We’ll find out if history once again repeats itself Saturday against the 12-4 Chiefs.
“Tony Dungy always said the first one is the toughest one,’’ Irsay said. “You get the first one and the sky’s the limit.
“As Al Davis said, ‘We’re dangerous! We’re dangerous!’’
The Texans undoubtedly agree after losing to the Colts at home twice in five weeks.
Luck and Mack shared the spotlight as Indy bolted to a 14-0 lead for the second time in two games. Luck was 5-for-7 for 69 yards on the first drive – he intentionally got hobbled T.Y. Hilton involved early, hitting him three times for 63 yards on the 75-yard possession – that ended with Luck’s 6-yard TD to Ebron. Mack rushed seven times for 45 yards and a 2-yard TD on the ensuing possession, giving the Colts a 14-0 cushion.
The pass-run mix kept the Texans’ No. 12-ranked defense off balance and, more important, kept disruptors J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney from generating momentum-swinging plays. Houston failed to sack Luck and was credited with just four hits on him.
“We know as an offense when we can do that, we can have great balance,’’ Luck said. “We can throw it a bunch, we can huddle up, we can go up-tempo, slow down the tempo, we can run it.’’
Luck completed just 3-of-10 passes for 30 yards in the second half, but Mack’s power running and coordinator Matt Eberflus’ swarming defense picked up the slack. The Colts amassed 115 yards on 19 rushes after the break, with Mack accounting for 86 on 11 attempts.
Houston’s run defense entered the game ranked 3rd in fewest yards per game allowed (82.7) and 1st in yards per attempt (3.4). The last time it had allowed a 100-yard rusher was in the 2017 season finale against the Colts when Frank Gore finished with 100.
“There was some really effective runs early in the game, and to finish the game like we did, I’m really proud of the guys up front,’’ Luck said. “It’s not easy to run the ball on that defense.
“We made the most of it. I’m proud of Marlon, proud of all the guys up front.’’
A defense that has steadily improved, meanwhile, made the plays when they needed to be made. The Texans were 3-of-13 on third-down conversions and 2-of-5 on fourth down. They finished with 105 rushing yards, but quarterback Deshaun Watson accounted for 76 on eight rushes/scrambles.
There were sacks from cornerback Kenny Moore II and Al-Quadin Muhammad, a shared sack from Hassan Ridgeway and Grover Stewart; 13 tackles and a defended pass from rookie Darius Leonard; and game-long coverage from Moore and Pierre Desir that limited DeAndre Hopkins to 5 catches and 37 yards on 10 targets.
At game’s end, the Colts had followed the blueprint put in place during the offseason by general manager Chris Ballard and Reich.
They ran the ball.
They stopped the run.
They received timely and efficient passing from Luck. The Colts converted their first seven third-down situations.
They limited their mistakes. Luck’s interception was a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage by Watt, and there were only two penalties for 10 yards.
As Reich addressed the media, his players were savoring the moment in the locker room.
“That’s good stuff right there in the locker room right now,’’ he said. “A lot of guys are real happy, who worked really hard. Not just fight and scratch to get in the playoffs, but to do something, to make some noise.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.