This was a defining moment for the 2012 Colts.
How did they do it?
Indy has defied explanation all season, so hopefully a second look at the tape will show how they pulled off their 11th win of the season.
The Real Story
The biggest difference between this game and the 29-17 beating by the Texans two weeks ago was the fast start by Indianapolis, as they held a 14-6 lead at halftime.
The Texans dominated large stretches of the contest but, once again, settled for field goals at the wrong times. Because Indy had a great opening drive (13 plays, 75 yards in 7:09) for a touchdown, the Texans played more uphill. It's also clear that the emotion of the crowd played a factor in the game.
When Deji Karim ran back a kick 101 yards for a touchdown, the Texans appeared to panic. Matt Schaub played poorly down the stretch, throwing an incompletion and interception on his last two attempts deep in Colts' territory. That was all it took for the Colts to flip the score.
In the first outing, J.J. Watt was the dominant force in the game. He was every bit as effective against the run in the second affair, but the Colts did just enough to block him in the passing game to give Andrew Luck time to throw, as Watt registered no sacks and couldn't manage to force any takeaways.
In all, better play from Luck, lineman Mike McGlynn, crowd noise and a particularly, largely unforced bad outing from Schaub pushed the Colts to victory.
Indy has become that team that is just fundamentally sound enough to force the other team into beating themselves. They were still dramatically outmatched in terms of talent, but let the Texans make the critical errors.
For the Texans, Watt was again the star of the show. He had four tackles for a loss and got plenty of pressure on Luck. He simply lacked the one defining sack that could have changed the game.
Vontae Davis shook off a miserable game against Houston two weeks ago and came up with two huge interceptions.
The first was actually bad coverage work by him, but Schaub threw a terrible pass, allowing Davis to run underneath it for a pick. The second was good, fundamental coverage. He cut off Andre Johnson's path to the ball, while looking up to avoid a flag. It was a superlative play against one of the league's best wideouts.
T.Y. Hilton continued his spectacular debut this season with yet another huge touchdown catch, this time from 70 yards out. It came on one of the prettiest throws of the season by Luck.
Obviously, Deji Karim's return was a big play, but the Indianapolis special teams were outstanding all game long, scoring one touchdown and pinning the Texans deep in their own end.
Once again, Johnson, targeted 17 times, was the Texans' offense, compiling 141 on 12 catches. Indianapolis has never had an answer for him and they certainly didn't find one this game.
Schaub was an absolute mess. His first pick should have been a touchdown the other way for James Casey, but was woefully underthrown. He made bad decisions and was just off on makeable throws. Quarterbacks can get too much blame, but he cost his team dearly.
Cassius Vaughn continued his run of poor play against the Texans. They completed passes on him at will.
Early in the second quarter, a three-play sequence showed exactly why Luck is so highly regarded.
After hitting Reggie Wayne for 10 yards and a first down, Luck hustled his team up to the line, catching the Texans off guard. They were penalized for having too many men on the field.
On 1st-and-5, he called a run to Vick Ballard for 8 yards, then followed it up by forcing another Houston mental error, drawing the Texans offsides with his snap count.
The drive eventually stalled as Ballard dropped a sure first down pass, but the Colts moved 18 yards in three plays, only one of which counted. That is the type of offensive mastery emblematic of an established veteran rather than a rookie taking over a losing squad.
Obviously, Chuck Pagano's imprint on this game was massive. The crowd was buzzing from the start and his mere presence on the sideline was a story in and of itself.
It would be disrespectful to treat him like a story and not a coach, however. He had a questionable decision early in the game to punt on 4th-and-3, but it worked out for the Colts. They downed a punt inside the five and later picked off Schaub.
Most impressive was his willingness to stay aggressive late in the game. Luck threw deep on 3rd-and-23, and the play went for a score. The Colts passed on 3rd-and-2 to ice the game just before the two-minute warning.
Both bode well for Pagano's future.
Gary Kubiak, on the other hand, called one of his worst games of the year.
Much like the first contest, he was over conservative in field goal range. On 3rd-and-9 from the Indy 29, he killed a long Houston drive by calling for a dead-in-the-water wide receiver screen to set up the first Texans' field goal.
The Texans then capped an embarrassing sequence near the end of the first half with a badly conceived quarterback sneak.
Finally, his inane decision to let Shayne Graham attempt a 53-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter was mock-worthy. With his team trailing by five, he called a timeout to set up a low-percentage field goal try by a kicker who has been unreliable all season from long range, failing to convert on any kick longer than 51 yards in 2012.
Keep An Eye On
It's playoff time for both teams. Which team's time will run out?
For the Texans, a win would make the season seem like less of a failure. No matter what happens in the Divisional Round, at least they will have gotten as far as they did in 2011.
While a win would be incredible for the Colts, if they don't upset the Ravens, they'll look back at 2012 as one of the most beloved, feel-good seasons in franchise history. With the most cap room in football this offseason, they'll be able to make the roster moves necessary to turn in a similar performance in 2013.