After a regular season defined by their ability to rally, the No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts opened the playoffs Saturday by dominating the division champion Houston Texans from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
When the dust officially settled on Frank Reich's first playoff victory as a head coach, the scoreboard read: Colts 21, Texans 7.
It didn't feel that close. The Colts handled Houston so thoroughly, even Reich, the author of the greatest postseason comeback ever as a player — against a different Houston football team — likely didn't give the Texans a real chance after intermission, when they trailed 21-0.
At no point after the four-minute mark of the first quarter did Indianapolis lead by fewer than two possessions. The Colts' didn't fail to convert a third down until the third quarter, after starting a perfect 7-of-7.
Andrew Luck, the least sacked quarterback in the NFL during the regular season, wasn't dropped once in this game and was barely touched despite dropping back 32 times, completing 19 passes for 222 yards, including two TDs and one pick. J.J. Watt had two passes defensed that might have saved another touchdown, but the Colts' O-line rendered Houston's All Pro and his Pro Bowl sidekick, Jadeveon Clowney, essential non-factors.
Luck came out of the gate on fire, leading 75- and 74-yard touchdown drives on Indy's first two offensive possessions, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ebron and a 2-yard rushing score by Marlon Mack. Luck threaded the needle on a 38-yarder to T.Y. Hilton one play before Ebron's touchdown, and the Colts' second drive was fueled by Mack, who ripped off runs of 25 and 9 as part of his third 100-yard rushing day in the past four weeks.
Meantime, Houston went three-and-out on its first series and Deshaun Watson — who endured his first double-digit loss since high school — was intercepted on fourth-and-4 in plus territory to halt the Texans' second drive. After Luck quickly returned the favor with an interception of his own, deflected off Watt's hand into the arms of NT Brandon Dunn, Indy's 'D' forced another three-and-out.
After quickly hitting Dontrelle Inman for 21 and Ebron for 18, Luck found Inman on an 18-yard score off a corner route to make it 21-zip. Another promising Texans drive thereafter was again marred on fourth down, when Watson couldn't connect with DeAndre Hopkins, turning it over on downs at the Colts' 9.
As spectacular as Luck and his O-line played, and as convincingly as Reich out-coached Bill O'Brien, we can't overlook the work of the Colts 'D,' which pitched a shutout for nearly 50 minutes, neutralizing Hopkins and hounding Watson consistently.
Underrated nickel back Kenny Moore intercepted Watson early. Pierre Desir dropped a would-be second pick but applied terrific coverage on Hopkins to force the incompletion on third down. All Pro Darius Leonard also dropped a would-be pick-six, but the rookie All Pro and NFL tackling leader racked them up again, with a game-high 13.
It was an off day for Watson, but he did find his rhythm, albeit too little too late, in the fourth quarter during a 16-play, 89-yard scoring drive, capped on a six-yard TD toss to Keke Coutee. Houston's 'D' couldn't get the requisite stop on the Colts' subsequent third down, a gorgeous sideline connection from Luck to T.Y. Hilton for 20 yards on third-and-long. But it got off the field a few plays later thanks to Watt coaxing a holding penalty by Colts rookie RT Braden Smith.
Of Hilton's five catches for 85 yards, including 3-63 on the game's opening drive, four resulted in third-down conversions. Although Hilton was quiet after the first drive until his big fourth-quarter conversion, one might even say the inability of the Texans' 'D' to account for him in high-leverage moments was a clown show. (Johnathan Joseph, whose Houston secondary regularly has been abused by Hilton in recent seasons, called the Colts' Pro Bowl receiver a "clown" in the run-up to Saturday.)
The Texans again showed some life on their next series before Watson's off-target fourth-and-10 attempt with just over four minutes remaining represented Houston's last gasp. Mack closed out the victory with chunk runs of 15 and 26 en route to a monster 24-148 rushing day to bury a Houston 'D' that hadn't allowed a 100-yard back all season.
The Colts now will take the NFL's only five-game win streak — pending the outcome of the Chicago Bears-Philadelphia Eagles game Sunday — to Arrowhead, where the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs await. It'll mark several renewing of acquaintances, from Colts GM and Executive of the Year candidate Chris Ballard facing his former team, to Luck reuniting with an Andy Reid-led Chiefs team that he beat in a scintillating 2013 wild-card shootout 45-44 after throwing for 443 yards and 4 TDs.
Reich and Luck dueling Reid and likely MVP Patrick Mahomes should make for great theater, but the key for the Colts will be whether DC Matt Eberflus' unit can carry its exceptional performance in Houston over against the NFL's most prolific offense. And after surviving largely by the skin of their teeth much of the season, Indianapolis has manufactured resounding victories in three of its past four, including in a pair of potential elimination games. With their ability to sustain drives and make big plays on 'D,' perhaps the Colts do have a chance of pulling a second straight road upset.
Regardless, it's been a long time since we've discussed complete Colts clubs putting together 60-minute efforts in January, but that's exactly what happened Saturday. The Colts' last great playoff teams might have been built more on finesse and scoring, but this group played the part of bully Saturday against its division foe that had done most of it in recent seasons.