NFL playoff teams build a head of steam while Texans fumble to the finish
INDIANAPOLIS — The nightmare returns with Reggie Wayne beating Kareem Jackson on a long pass, with J.J. Watt getting flagged again and again, with a gassed defense watching Wayne leap high to catch a game-stealing touchdown pass with 00:19 left.
Hold the dream season. The old dread is back.
Indianapolis Colts 19, Houston Texans 16.
On a weekend used by the NFL elite to build up steam heading into the playoffs, the Texans, in front of a national TV audience, and with Peyton Manning grinning and watching every move from the sideline on a day when his owner swore he'd be back to haunt teams like the Texans again, a 1-13 Colts team effectively ended playoff-bound Houston's chances of getting a first-round bye. At least, any realistic chance.
Offensive . . . failure.
The Texans (10-5) scored seven points in the first 54 seconds and then didn't score another touchdown in the remaining 59 minutes and six seconds. A Brian Cushing-led (two forced fumbles, one setup touchdown) defense couldn't overcome that.
"When did Dan Orlovsky turn into Peyton Manning?" rookie Texans linebacker Brooks Reed half joked, half asked.
Downfield passes were as extinct as dinosaurs most of the night — for both teams — as T.J. Yates (13 of 16 for a measly 132 yards) and Dan Orlovsky might as well have played this game in a 15-yard box. Foster ran for 158 yards on 23 carries, averaging 6.9 yards a touch on a night when nothing else was working for Houston's quarterback-burdened offense. But Orlovsky, the ex-Texan, did him one better — driving his team 78 yards in 12 plays for the win.
He did it without a timeout. He did it with a 44-yard pass to Wayne (the best pass for anyone on this night), who twisted Jackson around on the catch like so many elite wideouts did last year. And he did with the aid of three crucial penalties against the Texans defense — two of those coming against Watt.
"When did Dan Orlovsky turn into Peyton Manning?" rookie Texans linebacker Brooks Reed half joked, half asked veteran DeMeco Ryans in the locker room afterwards. Ryans just grunted. It was that kind of night for the Texans.
Hey, who needs Peyton? OK, maybe America.
This Thursday Night primetime affair could hardly have been uglier — liable to leave any casual fans who put off last minute Christmas shopping to watch it with regrets. Don't worry — Houston has even more regrets, with the playoffs looming, the Texans are swooning.
"We had a chance to come in here and do something we'd never done before," Foster said of winning in Indianapolis, the home of the battered bully that's pushed the Texans around for years — and now one more night. "And we didn't finish."
This looked much too much like one of the Texans' collapses from that 6-10 2010 season. Say what you want about the Texans defense, it's clearly not quite the same with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (the man who changed everything) watching from home.
Sixteen points allowed should be enough to win an NFL game. But the Texans have anything but a usual margin for error. Not starting a third-string rookie quarterback.
"I thought I played pretty well," Yates insisted afterwards. "We moved the ball."
Sort of. The Texans had 14 first downs to 24 for the Orlovsky-led Colts, finished with under 300 yards of total offense and a horrific one-for-10 conversion rate on third downs. That says much more about Yates play than his quarterback rating.
Fast Start, Horrible Ending
Orlovsky came into the game 1-9 as an NFL starter — and the Texans defense quickly remind him who he is. Cushing sacks Orlovsky on the very first play from scrimmage, separating the unsure quarterback from the football. Reed pounces on the flying football and Yates finds himself starting his first drive of the game on the Colts' 17-yard line.
Two Foster runs later, it's 7-0. Houston has the quick lead, just 54 seconds in, despite having deferred and kicked the ball off to Indianapolis. Leave it to the D. Cushing and Co. take it upon themselves to restore the Texans' early season ways of jumping off to a fast advantage.
When Yates commits his own bad quarterbacking mistake (letting Robert Mathis strip the ball from him on a sack and recover it inside the Texans' 35-yard line), Houston's defense simply comes up with another answer. This time, Connor Barwin sacks Orlovsky for a seven-yard loss on third down, taking the Colts out of field-goal range.
But Orlovsky would complete enough slants and curls to Wayne and Pierre Garcon to move the ball into Adam Vinatieri's range several times in the first half and with the old Patriots Super Bowl hero hitting two of three kicks, the Texans lead stood at a rather slim 10-6 at halftime.
So much for breathing room.
The days of Texans' blowing away teams are long gone, figments of a dream season that's encased in a cast. Phillips will be back on the sidelines for the Jan. 1 regular season finale against Tennessee. It's about trying to put the pieces back together for the playoffs now.
"We need to get a big win," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "A win where we're flying around and having fun again."
No wins are guaranteed in the NFL though. This is a league that eats the wounded — and the Texans suddenly look pretty appetizing to even the worst of teams.