After course correction, balanced Colts show they can run with NFL’s best

HOUSTON – Frank Reich, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts stumbled out of the gates.

The seemingly obvious recipe for success wasn’t working. The first-year head coach, the star quarterback and the Colts owned a 1-5 record.

So with the season already on the brink and another 10 games left on the schedule, Reich changed course.

He couldn’t keep having Luck go out and throw 40, 50 and 60 passes a game. Balance became his goal. And as far as the hole that he and his players found himself went, Reich stressed simplicity in this area, too.

“How are we getting better this day,” Reich challenged his players. “How are we getting better this day,” he asked the next day.

On game days, he preached them, “Let’s go 1-0 this week.” A victory did come – a blowout over Buffalo in which Luck threw only 23 passes while the offense racked up 220 rushing yards. And the daily quest for improvement continued. Eight more wins over a nine-week span produced a 10-6 record and put the Colts in the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Naturally, Reich didn’t change a thing on Saturday as the Colts faced AFC South rival Houston in the wild-card round. And the results, too, remained the same. Indianapolis upset its hosts 21-7 thanks to a balanced effort that featured 222 passing yards and touchdowns from Luck as well as 200 rushing yards and a touchdown from the ground attack.

What originally began as survival-mode approach now has the Colts well-conditioned for a postseason that will challenge them to win in a variety of ways.

“We know that as an offense, when we can do that, we have a great balance,” said Luck, who made his first playoff appearance since the 2014 season and improved his postseason record to 4-3. “We can throw it a bunch. We can huddle up. We can go up-tempo. We can slow down the tempo. We can run it.”

The margin of victory was only 14 points, and the Colts didn’t score in the second half. But nothing about this game was close. Indianapolis held a 422-322 yardage advantage on Houston 422-322. The Colts racked up 26 first downs, including 20 in the first half, and converted on nine of 14 third downs. The Texans managed 20 first downs but went 3-for-13 on third downs.

But perhaps the most impressive factor of the Colts’ win involved the way they neutralized Houston’s vaunted pass-rushers, including J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans didn't register a single sack, and only this season had they surrendered 200 rushing yards.

The Colts knocked the Texans on their heels from the start of the game, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions – a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive, and a nine-play, 74-yard follow-up. After throwing six times and running three times on the first drive, they ran six times and passed three times on the second possession.

“Before you know it, we’re down 14-0,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “We missed a third down – our first third-down of the game – then they got the ball back, went up 14-0. That just changes your whole offensive game plan. You’re almost in somewhat of a two-minute mode at that point in time, because you’ve got to play catch-up. Give the Colts credit all the way around. They did a better job than we did, obviously.”

Although these teams had faced each other twice this season – splitting those contests by a combined six points – the Colts just had a different look to them from the start.

Luck’s playoff experience, and the overall confidence with which he infuses his teammates, appeared evident. Meanwhile, the Texans appeared tight and made uncharacteristic mistakes.

“I know it sounds cliché,” center Ryan Kelly said, “but ever since we were 1-5, every win has been so big because we’ve had the cards stacked against us the whole season because of the hole we dug ourselves in.”

Added wide receiver Zach Pascal, “Our coach always emphasizes going 1-0. … We’ve been in this mode since the Buffalo game, where we knew we couldn’t lose. So, it was good to see us come out, play like we normally play and execute.”

Up next, the Colts travel to Kansas City to take on the prolific Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs in the divisional round. For much of the season, they have flown under the radar despite their strong finish to the season. The Chiefs no doubt will be tabbed as favorites, “but we don’t care what anyone thinks of us on the outside,” cornerback Pierre Desir said.

Although they’re following Reich's week-by-week mentality, the Colts believe they have what it takes for a deep postseason run. They have the elite-level quarterback and a diverse and well-rounded offense as well as an emerging defense. And they have the mental toughness that enabled them to become only the third team in league history to reach the playoffs after a 1-5 start. And at this point of the year, it’s often the mental that elevates above the physical.

“Everyone has faith in each other,” Desir said. “Frank is a great coach, great leader. He brings everyone in and everyone believes in him and each other, and that’s what got us to this point.”

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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