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Colts eliminated from playoff contention in brutal 23-19 loss to Texans

First-year head coach Shane Steichen made a costly decision to veer away from his star running back with the season on the line.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) works for extra yards on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, during a game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Indianapolis Colts were eliminated from playoff contention following Saturday’s 23-19 loss against the divisional rival Houston Texans in the season finale at Lucas Oil Stadium.

First-year head coach Shane Steichen made a costly decision to veer away from his star running back with the season on the line. Faced with fourth-and-1 at Houston’s 15-yard line, Steichen opted to call timeout, change the personnel and put the 2023 campaign in the hands of his fifth-year veteran QB.

Instead of riding Jonathan Taylor – who left it all out on the gridiron with a season-high 188 rushing yards on 30 carries and a touchdown – Gardner Minshew tried to hit third-string tailback Tyler Goodson out of the backfield in the flat. The throw was behind Goodson and the leather slipped away from his grasp for a turnover on downs. Indianapolis had rushed for 227 yards before the fatal fourth down, while Goodson finished with no catches on two targets.

An illegal hands to the face penalty against Texans’ cornerback Desmond King II gifted the Colts a new set of downs on the opening drive. Minshew connected with receiver Michael Pittman Jr. on three consecutive dropbacks to move inside Texans territory. Minshew fed Taylor for a 13-yard gain to reach the red zone, which ultimately set up kicker Matt Gay for a 38-yard field goal to give the Colts an early 3-0 lead.

Houston took the energy out of Lucas Oil Stadium on its first play from scrimmage as Stroud launched a missile to receiver Nico Collins on a deep post for a 75-yard touchdown to give the Texans a 7-3 lead. Despite taking a hit from Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, Stroud’s throw traveled 61 air yards, which is the longest completed pass of his rookie campaign and the third-furthest completion by any quarterback this season.

Houston’s rookie scored an immaculate 154.2 passer rating in the first half and became the fifth rookie in NFL history to surpass 4,000 passing yards. Stroud completed 20 of 26 passes for 264 passing yards, cementing his case as an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.

Collins cooked the Colts secondary with nine receptions on nine targets for 195 receiving yards and the longest touchdown of his three-year career.

After stunning Indianapolis in nine seconds, Stroud continued to attack outside the numbers against Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 scheme. Stroud engineered a scoring drive with a screen pass to Collins for a 29-yard gain to set up first-and-goal. Three plays later following the two minute warning, Stroud found fullback Andrew Beck wide open in the end zone for his second touchdown pass to extend the lead to 14-3.

Indianapolis’ offensive line cleared an alley for Taylor to burst through and record his first 100-yard game of the season. The Colts pounded the ground with 11 designed carries for Taylor on their first four drives, but were forced to move away from the run game once the Texans increased the lead to double-digits.

Minshew struggled to settle in as the Colts went 0-for-6 on third down during the first half. He pushed the pace in the two-minute drill and scrambled out of the pocket to dart a completion to rookie receiver Josh Downs inside Texans territory. With 66 receptions, Downs passed Bill Brooks for the most receptions by a rookie in franchise history. Matt Gay connected on a 52-yard FG to cut the deficit to 14-6 before halftime.

Houston needed just two plays to reach midfield on its first drive of the second half, but Buckner corralled Stroud to thwart the Texans scoring opportunity. After Minshew found tight end Kylen Granson on a corner route to reach midfield, Taylor made Texans DT Kurt Hinish whiff in the backfield and raced for a 49-yard touchdown. Taylor’s sixth career TD of 40-plus yards is the most in the league. Indianapolis successfully converted the two-point attempt as Minshew faked the hand off and tossed a pass to Mo Ali-Cox wide open in the blue turf to tie it 14-14.

After Matt Gay’s 57-yard FG attempt ricocheted off the right upright to give the Texans possession near midfield, opposing kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn responded with a 51-yard FG to regain a 17-14 lead.

Steichen ran the football down the teeth of the Texans defense behind his 1-2 punch and successfully used his challenge flag to overturn the spot and earn a new set of downs late in the third quarter. Minshew found his groove and stepped up in the pocket to find Pittman wide open at midfield, then an unnecessary roughness penalty against King tacked on another 15-yards after the catch. Gay redeemed himself with a 35-yarder to tie the game 17-17 early in the fourth quarter.

Houston retaliated as Stroud engineered an 11-play scoring drive, overcoming two scenarios where penalties moved the offense 10 yards behind the sticks. Devin Singletary ran a 3-yard touchdown to give the Texans a 23-17 lead, but Fairbarn’s extra point missed wide left.

Minshew connected with Downs on an out route, who dashed away from King past midfield. After an illegal use of the hands penalty against Maliek Collins gave the Colts another first down via penalty, Minshew fed Taylor on seven consecutive carries to move the sticks. Tough to think after the backfield tandem averaged over six yards per carry, the ‘must have it’ play call was designed for a player who had not caught a single pass in the entire game.

Without rookie QB Anthony Richardson, the Colts were among the most improved NFL teams and finished the regular season 9-8. Amid all the suspensions stemming from gambling, performance-enhancing substances, or detrimental sabotage from within the locker room, Steichen held his players accountable. At the conclusion of Steichen’s first campaign at the helm, the Colts had an opportunity to control their own destiny and bring a playoff atmosphere to Lucas Oil Stadium.

The first chapter of the Steichen era ends in Indianapolis.