Andrew Luck is the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year for the 2018 season, but he spent almost all of Saturday’s game playing ahead. After entering halftime with a three-touchdown lead, the Indianapolis Colts held on for a 21-7 win over the Houston Texans, walloping a division rival and looking like a serious threat in the AFC in the process.
Luck finished with 19 completions on 32 attempts for 222 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception while being sacked zero times on Saturday. That protection set the tone for the game, as he picked apart Houston’s pass defense over and over while either chilling worry-free in the pocket or taking rollouts that resembled leisurely strolls. On the first drive of the game, Luck hit a wide-open Eric Ebron with a quick pass on first-and-goal from the 6-yard line for an easy opening score.
The Colts led the rest of the way, and it wasn’t close. After forcing a three-and-out, the Colts got the ball back and drove down the field for a nine-play, 74-yard possession capped by a Marlon Mack rushing touchdown. Before the snap, Ebron motioned across the formation and ran the same route as his touchdown on the previous drive, but this time, Mack took the handoff and ran to the other side of the field.
The Colts took a 14-0 lead with the play, and after trading interceptions and then forcing another Texans three-and-out, the Colts got the ball back midway through the second quarter. Luck threw his second touchdown pass of the day, which, like the first, came with him facing no pressure and finding a wide-open receiver.
Luck was barely bothered throughout the game.
ANDREW LUCK, without a doubt, is setting up not as deep this year. I've studied him extensively. His footwork is shorter and he's easier to protect. This is a qk 7 step play action drop. Lots of QBs end up at 10 yards depth … only to their demise. @CaptAndrewLuck #Colts pic.twitter.com/xUUeN1xzCG— Paul Alexander (@CoachPaulAlex) January 5, 2019
The pass protection is part of a broader effort by the Colts’ front office, which invested in a renewed offensive line highlighted by rookie (and All-Pro) guard Quenton Nelson, and the coaching staff led by head coach Frank Reich, which placed an increased focus on getting the ball out more quickly to receivers running shorter-breaking routes. Together, these factors made Luck the hardest QB to sack in 2018, as he was taken down just 18 times this season and just nine times since Week 5. That continued on Saturday, when J.J. Watt and Co. failed to sack Luck as Indy went into halftime up 21-0 and 6-of-6 on third down.
The Texans also learned an important life lesson: Don’t mess with clowns. After cornerback Johnathan Joseph called Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton a “clown” because Hilton pointed out (extremely accurately) that he has been astounding when playing against Houston (he averages more than 100 yards in these matchups), Hilton showed up to the game in a clown mask. You know. Like a serial killer.
Hilton, despite fighting a nagging ankle injury, finished with a team-leading five catches and 85 yards while looking plenty healthy.
What a pass from Luck to Hiltonpic.twitter.com/fmG5gDVF7B— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 6, 2019
Indy’s defense, led by rookie (and also All-Pro) linebacker Darius Leonard, was exemplary. The defense held the Texans to just 4.7 yards per play and 5-of-18 on third and fourth downs combined, as the Colts handed Watson his first double-digit loss since 2013, when he played against Buford High School. The Colts defense needed to step up despite the team’s stellar first half after the offense slowed in the final two quarters, but the team still held Houston to just seven points, and the lone touchdown could’ve been called a touchback and Indianapolis ball if former head of league officiating Dean Blandino were still in charge.
More angles from Houston #Texans WR Keke Coutee’s touchdown. Do you agree with the call, or do you think it should’ve been ruled a touchback?— Andersen Pickard (@andersenreports) January 6, 2019
Call on field: touchdown.
Call after review: touchdown. pic.twitter.com/ascwevO9xp
“I know we can play even better,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said in the locker room after the game. “I know it.”
Now the Colts will head to Kansas City for the divisional round to take on the no. 1 seed Chiefs. The last time the Colts faced the Chiefs in the playoffs, Luck led the second-largest comeback in playoff history by turning a 28-point deficit into a 45-44 victory. That January 2014 game still stands as the worst of all of Andy Reid’s myriad playoff collapses, and now Kansas City faces a Colts squad that has won 10 of its past 11 games since starting 1-5. The Chiefs have a stronger pass rush than Houston, as Dee Ford and Chris Jones combined for 28.5 sacks. But if the Chiefs can’t get pressure on Luck, the likely Comeback Player of the Year might put the pressure on Kansas City.