It’s been four years since Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay could gush outside a locker room after an NFL playoff victory.
The passionate owner couldn’t stop gushing on Saturday after the sixth-seeded Colts delivered a convincing 21-7 AFC Wild Card Playoff road victory over the third-seeded Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” Irsay said after the Colts scored 21 first-half points and held the Texans scoreless for three quarters. “These guys played their hearts out.”
His search for the right words to put the win in perspective inevitably led to the owner quoting others. He mentioned second-year general manager Chris Ballard, who rebuilt a 4-12 team from a year ago with the simple philosophy of protecting quarterback Andrew Luck “at all costs” and strengthening both lines.
Luck, who wasn’t sacked by a defense led by three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, was particularly impressive in driving the Colts to touchdowns on their initial two possessions. Talk about a fast start, the Colts gained 155 of their 422 yards in the opening quarter. Luck completed 16 of 22 passes for 192 yards with two TD passes to Eric Ebron and Dontrelle Inman in the first half.
“We just came together as a band of brothers,” Ebron said of the Colts rebounding from a 1-5 start under first-year head coach Frank Reich to reach the second round of the playoffs.
“Slowly and surely, guys, you just believe,” Luck said. “You start to believe in yourself, because that’s always step one, and then you start to believe in each other. This is a fun group of guys to play with and it’s a great locker room. Chris (Ballard) has put a great bunch of guys together. They care about each other.”
The Luck-driven offense is a key reason why the Colts (11-6) have won 10 of 11 to extend this improbable season to next Saturday, when they travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs (12-4). Ballard was in the Chiefs front office before coming to the Colts.
“I really can believe it,” Reich said. “That’s what happens when you believe in each other and you work hard every day and you just get a little bit better, 1 percent better every day. That’s what we talk about. Just get 1 percent better as the season goes on.
“That’s a long climb. If you can keep getting better throughout the season with the players that we have, I believe we’re right where we should be.”
Perhaps most impressive was how the Colts ran the ball with second-year back Marlon Mack. The offensive line dominated against a Texans defense that had not allowed a 100-yard rusher as Mack finished with a playoff franchise-record 148 yards rushing and one TD. It's also the first time the Colts have rushed for 200 yards in the postseason. And it came against the NFL's third-ranked rushing defense.
The Texans (11-6) ran out of time because although the Colts stopped scoring they kept chewing up clock running the football. Even when everyone knew Mack was going to get the ball, the home team couldn’t stop him. He ripped off a 29-yard rush in the third quarter, then runs of 26 and 15 yards in the final minutes to set up his team taking a knee in victory formation.
“To finish the game the way we did, I’m proud of the guys up front,” Luck said. “It’s not easy to run the ball on that defense. I’m proud of Marlon and proud of all of the guys up front.”
A Colts defense led by NFL leading tackler Darius Leonard stuffed the Texans for three quarters as quarterback Deshaun Watson couldn’t get into rhythm and big plays came few and far between. The Colts sacked him three times. The Texans managed just 322 total yards, most of those in the final quarter when the Colts dropped back and allowed underneath throws and some Watson scrambles.
Leonard, named first-team All-Pro this week, finished with a game-high 13 total tackles.
“I just wanted to come out there and set the tone early,” Leonard said. “I knew it was going to be a hostile environment. I wanted to go out there and make plays and take the crowd out of the game.”
That partisan Texans crowd started booing in the first half.
Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton showed up at the stadium wearing a clown mask, his response to Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph referring to him as a “clown” for calling Houston his “second home” in reference to the pass catcher averaging 133.3 receiving yards in seven career starts at this stadium.
Told of Joseph’s comment, Hilton asked a trainer to get the clown mask from a Party City.
“I was so happy,” Hilton said of the mask. “It was the last one.”
Don’t let the unusual appearance fool you, Hilton wasn’t playing around. Despite practicing just twice in the last month due to a gimpy ankle, Hilton got off to a fast start with an early 38-yard catch to set up the first score and finished with five receptions for 85 yards.
“That first drive was huge. When the plays were scripted, those plays are going to T.Y.,” Reich said. “When T.Y. gets going, that gets us going.”
The Colts have continued to prove that anything is possible with what they have going.
Irsay’s happiness ended with him quoting the words of former Colts head coach Tony Dungy and late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
“Onward we go,” Irsay said. “Tony Dungy always said, ‘The first one is the toughest. You get that first one, and then the sky’s the limit.’”
Then he mentioned a Davis playoff proclamation.
“We’re dangerous!” Irsay shouted. “We’re dangerous!”