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Keys to the Game: Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans Wild Card Round

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It is still hard to believe that the Indianapolis Colts are playing football in January. Early in the season, even at 1-4, there were indications that Indianapolis was not as bad as its record indicated. Strange late-game mistakes or fluke-ish batted balls for interceptions resulted in maddening in-game self-destruction.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for my hope in 2018 was the embarrassing loss to the New York Jets. It was a game the team needed to grab to right the ship. It was the beginning of a decidedly easier stretch in the schedule and the team had its back against the wall. Failing to capitalize made me question whether the potential I saw early was a season away from materializing.

In what was certainly a test for the mettle of a young team and in a position where few would have blamed them for making excuses and packing things in, they did the opposite. The team came together with a refocused resolve to keep the season going. A new attitude to go 1-0 each week took hold, the offensive line got healthy and started to gel.

For those who point to a relatively weak back-half schedule, you are correct. The Colts had a reasonably favorable path to going on a late-season run. However, it shouldn’t go underappreciated that the team broke the will of other hot NFL teams during that stretch, played through late-game adversity to come back out of early deficits, and refused to flinch under the reality that they could not afford to make mistakes.

Now they have done the improbable. They have played their way into the playoffs after a 1-5 start, the third time a team has been able to achieve this feat in NFL history. Chris Ballard has been a part of two of those three teams. He has put the Colts in a position to face a familiar division opponent in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in only his second season as an NFL General Manager.

What are the keys for the Colts to advance?


Houston’s biggest defensive strength can be found on the edges. J.J. Watt has had an outstanding comeback season and is still capable of turning the tables in any game. He will face rookie right tackle Braden Smith, and likely a pretty heavy dose of Ryan Hewitt and Mo Alie-Cox. Clowney will have to win against Anthony Castonzo and First Team All-Pro rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.

If the Colts offensive line, a unit that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2018, can continue to perform at a high level and limit the impact that Houston’s superstar edge defenders have on the game, it will go a long way to securing a Colts victory.


Houston’s defense has shown real cracks defending the pass. T.Y. Hilton has enjoyed many of his best performances against the Texans, often in Houston. He is fighting through an ankle injury that has clearly caused him considerable pain but his production with the injury is his best and most consistent of the season.

Even if Hilton is used as a decoy, Indianapolis should be able to utilize Chester Rogers, Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron, and Nyheim Hines heavily to keep the Texans guessing. Houston likes to play a lot of off-man coverage to limit big plays and force Andrew Luck to play mistake-free football. Frank Reich likes to utilize a lot of fast-developing, quick-release concepts in his passing offense.

If Houston doesn’t find a way to slow things down, the Colts could have a very efficient day clowning around in the Texans secondary.


Houston has one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL. The Colts offensive line with a healthy Ryan Kelly has been one of the most effective run offenses, at least at times. This could be a strength versus strength opportunity. The Texans weakness in the secondary will certainly be appealing but nothing could do more to take the wind of the sails of Deshaun Watson and his offense than to make Houston one-dimensional by taking a lead and controlling the ball.

The Colts offense is one of the more well-rounded units in the playoffs and if they can manage to get the ball moving on the ground, in the face of a defense that prides itself as taking that phase of the game away, it could help seal a big playoff win.


Rookie linebacker Matthew Adams has played a big role in games against mobile quarterbacks. He comes in as a strong side linebacker and acts as an extra edge protector. If he can continue to be effective in closing the pocket and keeping Watson contained, internal pressure from Hunt and Autry, as well as well-timed blitzes, can exploit a weak Texans offensive line.

Watson has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. He makes up for that tendency by escaping the pocket and picking up yards with his legs. If he can’t escape, he will take sacks and may make mistakes trying to get rid of the football late.


If the Indianapolis Colts eliminate unforced errors, they will be very difficult to beat in the playoffs. No mind-numbing interceptions to give Houston points on defense. No tipped passes for turnovers. No fumbles. Reduce or eliminate any failed trips to the red zone.

If they play sound, disciplined football, fans should feel really confident about the outcome. If they don’t, they will have to look at themselves in the mirror and realize that they came up short of their potential in the post-season because they couldn’t stop hurting themselves at key moments and in key games.