It set the stage for what was bound to be an intense meeting between two of the top teams in the conference, with playoff implications heavy and the balance of power in the entire AFC South potentially up for grabs.
What a difference four months makes.
What fans saw last night instead were two familiar, injury-plagued adversaries whose only motivations were for positioning and under completely opposite circumstances.
For Houston, the game was crucial in determining their seeding for the upcoming playoffs, as they’d already clinched the division and still had a shot at being the AFC’s top seed this postseason.
For Indianapolis, the game was critical in determining how high a selection they’ll receive in next year’s draft, as even though they’re still tied for the worst record in the NFL, they may lose the No. 1 pick to either the Vikings or the Rams next week if everything plays out just right.
Not quite the 60-point shoot out we expected back in August, but not a completely meaningless late-December contest either.
We know the Texans will continue their trek towards a successful playoffs debut even with this fifth loss of their season, and we know the Colts will continue their surprising rise to the top of the 2012 draft board even despite their two-game win streak.
But that’s not all.
Read on to see what else we learned from Indianapolis after last night’s suspenseful prime-time triumph.
That’s what happens when you put together your first win streak in 11 months; you start to feel good about yourself.
Not that it makes up for the 14 consecutive losses this team suffered dating back to last year’s playoffs, of course.
Nor does it excuse all the wretched performances they’ve displayed during many of those losses.
But it's something, at a time when Indianapolis needed it most, and there’s no shame in enjoying whatever relief those wins provide for as long as you can.
The Colts believe in themselves right now, and after the season they’ve experienced, that’s no small feat.
You can see it in the way they’ve been fighting for extra yards these past two games and in the way they’ve fought through adversity.
On Sunday, they were down by three points at halftime against the Titans and came back to win with a 24-point second half.
Last night, they were down 7-0 to the Texans less than a minute into the game, and they still came back to win by denying Houston another touchdown all night.
Would the Colts have been able to overcome an early deficit like that two months ago?
They’re doing it now though, and if they keep it up, they might even close out this train wreck of a season by miraculously avoiding a last-place finish in the league.
Now whether avoiding that distinction is actually a good thing for the franchise or not, that’s another question altogether.
It’s still too early to know how much they’ve improved, as in all reality, this defense has really only looked respectable for five of the last 120 days we’ve seen them, but they have sustained their surprising new look for consecutive games now, and that can’t be written off as a mere coincidence.
You have to give Jim Caldwell some credit for keeping this team motivated this late into a failed season, and you have to give former linebackers coach Mike Murphy (who replaced Caldwell’s longtime friend Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator a month ago) some love for helping this defense find a new identity in the midst of such turmoil.
Before Murphy assumed his new role, the Colts were allowing over 29 points per game. Since then, that figure is down to 21 per game, it includes back-to-back performances holding opponents to under 17 points, and last night, the one touchdown Indy allowed was following a fumble that gave Houston the ball at the Colts’ 17-yard line.
There’s no question the defense we’ve seen from Indianapolis over the past week has been much more effective than we’ve seen in games past.
Then again, the way this defense played through the first 14 weeks of the season, there was nowhere for them to go but up, now was there?
Between Wayne’s contemplation over whether last night was his final home game in Indianapolis and owner Jim Irsay’s assertion that if Peyton Manning is healthy next season he’ll be playing for the Colts, it’s starting to look like the most intriguing personnel decision this team will have to make in the offseason (regarding its current roster, at least) is with respect to its former All-Pro wide receiver and not, surprisingly enough, its former All-Pro quarterback.
Irsay’s comments are consistent with the attitude Indy’s front office has displayed towards Manning’s future all season long: The Colts appear eager to draft Andrew Luck, but they want Manning back next year too.
Reggie Wayne, who becomes a free agent if Indy doesn’t re-sign the 33-year-old receiver this offseason, has received no such assurance.
How do you gauge the value of an aging talent like Wayne anyway, an experienced veteran who still has explosive potential, who seemed dominant for years on end while Peyton Manning was throwing to him but who completely fell off the map this season—the first time we’ve ever seen him play without the four-time MVP as his play-caller?
This isn’t Terrell Owens we’re talking about here. This is a guy who can still contribute.
Someone who’ll work hard. A leader. He’s a rare commodity for his position, and he’ll definitely draw some interest.
Will that interest be enough to draw him out of Indianapolis?
If so, where does he end up?
Time will only tell of course, but unless Manning or Irsay give us reason to suspect No. 18 might be wearing a different jersey in 2012, the answers should be anticipated more heavily than any others' surrounding this roster.
Felton is a fourth-year fullback the Colts signed on November 28th, and his impact has been evident in the Indianapolis running game ever since.
Before Felton’s arrival, the Colts were averaging 99 rushing yards per game and had six rushing touchdowns in 11 games. Since then, the team is averaging 113 per game (including a season high 205 against Tennessee last Sunday) and already has two touchdowns in just four contests.
This team has needed a boost to their running game for years and the addition of a fullback, specifically Felton, appears to provide it.
It’s only natural an extra blocker would help so much given their longstanding struggles with the offensive line, and it makes perfect sense the need would be highlighted this season, when Peyton “Maestro” Manning isn’t there to overshadow Indy’s severe lack of a rushing attack like he normally is.
Last night, we learned that boost should remain in place for next season too, when Manning is expected to return, and if it does, we might just find the Colts fielding an effective, balanced offense for the first time in ages.
And when you consider what Drew Brees has shown us is possible when an elite quarterback has a legitimate rushing threat on his side this season, the possibilities for Manning’s 2012 campaign ought to make any optimistic Colts fan gush.
Yes, the Colts were victorious last night for the second time in five days.
True, after two stellar performances in a row, the defense doesn’t seem quite so utterly hopeless anymore, nor does the future in Indianapolis seem quite as utterly bleak as it did just one week prior.
But come on.
Two wins is nice and all but you have to admit it’s a pretty weak consolation prize for a 2011 season that was practically over before it even started. Colts fans gave up on this season a long time ago. They know how bad this team is, and they figured out very early on that nothing good (or at least significant) was going to come out of this season, which remains the case even with their two surprising wins.
Andrew Luck has been the most popular Indianapolis Colt all season long. Peyton Manning has been nothing but a helpless spectator watching from the sidelines, and Bill Polian has come across more like a bitter, confused mental patient this year than as the genius architect of an elite NFL franchise like we’ve always known him to be.
The whole 2011 season was a complete waste, and the most intriguing aspect of this year’s team from a fan’s perspective has been merely speculating over how drastically to change it when given the opportunity.
The Colts' organization may have saved some face for both itself and its fanbase by beating the Titans and Texans, and, for that much, the city of Indianapolis is understandably grateful.
But is it a bigger relief than knowing these last four months of gridiron hell will finally come to a close nine days from now in Jacksonville?
For anyone not named Jim Caldwell, the answer is perfectly clear.
Merry Christmas, Colts fans.
The 2011 season will be history before you know it.