INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans know each other too well, so Saturday afternoon’s first-round playoff matchup between AFC South Division rivals at Houston’s NRG Stadium could come down to new wrinkles.
But not too many, according to Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich.
As a player and a coach, he’s been in this situation of division foes meeting again in the postseason several times. So while the Colts (10-6) and Texans (11-5) have learned a lot about each other in splitting regular-season meetings with each team winning on the road, now is not the time to stray too much from what has worked.
“You have to fight to find ways to make slight changes, but don’t go crazy,” Reich said on a Monday conference call. “You’ve got to avoid the mistake of ‘Hey, we’ve got to be drastically different just because they know us.’ At the end of the day, you have to do what got you here but then you still have to have a few new wrinkles, a few un-scouted looks to keep them guessing a little bit.”
The Colts have won nine of 10 games to become just the third team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after a 1-5 start. One of those more recent victories was 24-21 at Houston on Dec. 9. The Texans started off 0-3 before winning 37-34 in overtime on Sept. 30 in Indianapolis.
The latter game is memorable because Reich gambled on a fourth-and-four play at his own 43 when tied with 27 seconds remaining in overtime. The pass was incomplete. Deshaun Watson threw a 24-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins and then the Texans kicked the game-winning field goal.
That started a nine-game Texans winning streak which the Colts snapped three weeks ago.
The Texans know they have to get pressure on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw three TD passes in Sunday night’s 33-17 road win at Tennessee in a win-or-go-home showdown for both of those teams.
The Colts are well aware they have to block one of the NFL’s elite pass-rushing tandems in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Watt, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Pro, has enjoyed four multi-sack games in his career against the Colts, including two in the first meeting this season. Twelve of the defensive end’s 92 career sacks have come in 12 games against the Colts.
The Colts were the NFL’s best in fewest sacks allowed with just 18 this season. Watt had three of them.
Reich suggested the new wrinkles will be more subtle than anything.
“It can just be a personnel change,” he said. “You can run the same play and put different people in there and to the defense, it is like, ‘Hey, they might be running this but the last time they ran this they had two guys here and now it is two different guys.’ So it can be as little as something like that to a different formation or a motion or a shift. Or a little wrinkle can be ‘Hey, we are going to make it look like this run but then we are really going to throw a play-action off of it. We are going to give it the exact same set and formation of a successful run that we had last time and then we are going to throw this play.’ Just little wrinkles like that.
“I mean it is common, but I always think you still got to be who you are. I mean you have your core plays, it is 80 percent of what you do. That is obviously just an arbitrary number, but it is 70 to 80 percent of what you do. You just got to keep doing it, do it better, execute it and trust your guys to make plays. What I have experienced over the years is keep running the same plays over and over again and your good players figure out how to make them work. They know how to get open. The quarterback figured out every little nuance of how to read it versus every kind of coverage, every kind of leverage from a defender and there just gets to be a confidence in the play and in the players.”
Luck, who went to high school in the Houston area, passed for a career-high 464 yards, completing 40 of 62 passes with four TDs in the Week 4 home loss. He completed 27 of 41 passes for 399 yards with two TDs and one interception in the recent road win.
The Texans were fifth in scoring defense at just 19.8 points allowed while the Colts were fifth in scoring offense at 27.1 points per game. The Colts are coming off scoring 33 on the road against the Titans’ No. 2 scoring defense. Luck completed a career-best 67.3 percent of his passes this season, almost 4 percent higher than his previous high. He passed for 4,593 yards and 39 TDs with 15 interceptions.
A Colts defense led by NFL tackle-leader linebacker Darius Leonard ranked 11th in total defense and 10th in fewest points allowed (21.5). The Texans were 15th in total yards and 11th in scoring offense (25.1) with Watson, an elusive scrambler who can extend plays. In his second year, Watson completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,165 yards with 26 TDs and nine interceptions. He also ran 551 yards and five TDs.
The one undeniable concern for the Texans is pass protection. They allowed a league-high 62 sacks.
The Colts are in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, when they lost the AFC title game at New England. The Texans were last in the playoffs in 2016, when they lost in the second round at New England.
While the Texans needed Sunday’s 20-3 home win over Jacksonville to clinch the division title and earn the first-round home playoff game, the Colts don’t see this next game as any different than the previous 10.
“As I have alluded to and some players have alluded to, we’ve been in this – for lack of a better word – playoff mode for a while, kind of with our backs against the wall,” Reich said. “So I am trusting the process that has been established, the leadership of the players and the focus and the vision of what we are trying to do. That focus and vision is on getting better every day and then beating the next opponent. That is all that really matters. That’s the mindset we’ve been in. That’s the mindset we need to maintain.”
— Leonard, a second-round selection, finished his rookie regular season with a franchise-record 163 total tackles, 19 more than the next player in the league. He added his second interception on Sunday night and also contributed seven sacks this season.
— Luck tied an NFL record with Sunday night’s TD pass to tight end Ryan Hewitt, the 13th different player to catch a scoring pass from him this season. The catch was Hewitt’s first career NFL TD and first reception with the Colts.
— Colts tight ends have caught 21 of Luck’s 39 TD passes. Eric Ebron caught his 13th against the Titans and led all players at his position in scoring receptions.
— Second-year running back Marlon Mack rushed for 119 yards for his fourth 100-yard game this season. That’s the most since Joseph Addai had four in 2007.
— As is usually the case on the day after the game, Reich didn’t have any injury updates. Center Ryan Kelly (neck) and safety Clayton Geathers (knee) missed Sunday night. And rookie defensive end Tyquan Lewis (knee) exited early.
— One concern on the Colts’ O-line is right guard Mark Glowinski, who returned after missing one start with an ankle injury but was flagged twice for holding and once for tripping.
— Ebron, in his first season with the Colts after four in Detroit, earned his first Pro Bowl nod after posting career highs with 66 receptions for 750 yards and 14 total touchdowns (13 receiving, one rushing).
— Although hobbled by a sore ankle for the past month, Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has a league-best 951 receiving yards since Week 8 and is the only pass catcher to average more than 100 receiving yards with 105.7 during that stretch. Noticeably hampered by the ankle at Tennessee, he had two catches for 61 yards, the first time since Week 8 he didn’t have at least 77 receiving yards.
— Kicker Adam Vinatieri, who just turned 46 last week, became just the fourth NFL player to play at 46 or older. A 53-yard field goal was the 43rd of his career from 50-plus yards, moving him into fourth on that league’s all-time list.
— The two other teams to make the playoffs after 1-5 starts were the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals and 2015 Kansas City Chiefs. Both lost in the second round of the playoffs.