HOUSTON — The challenges have come throughout the season for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Jacksonville and its stingy defense. The same with Tennessee’s defense. Winning streaks by Houston and Dallas. And each time, Luck and the Colts found a way to beat those teams.
The Colts passed another test when they went on the road and knocked off the Texans 21-7 in an AFC wild-card game Saturday for their largest road playoff victory in 23 years.
“So tough to win on the road and this is a great team over there (in Houston),” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “We’re just fortunate. To come out and grab a 21-0 lead and then just play that tough chess game and come out still with the 14-point victory on the road. I couldn’t be more happy.”
Now Luck is about to face one of only two quarterbacks talked about more than him this season: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. The Colts will travel to play Kansas City in the divisional round next Saturday.
“Yeah, that will be fun, it’ll be great,” Luck said of preparing for the Chiefs.
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The Chiefs are the top seed in the AFC, but the Colts are the hotter team and the one with the potential to end what’s been a possible MVP season for Mahomes, who is in his first season as a starter.
Indianapolis has won 10 of 11 after starting the season 1-5 to become one of the most talked-about teams in the NFL.
The Colts need their offense to keep rolling in order to hang with a Chiefs offense that averaged an NFL-high 35.3 points a game and had five games of at least 40 points during the regular season. The Colts were fifth in the league in scoring at 27.1 points a game. Mahomes (50) and Luck (39) combined for 89 TD passes this season — the most in any QB matchup in postseason history according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“Right now it’s all about the team that’s hot,” Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “The team that gets hot makes a lot of noise in the playoffs.”
The Texans, who have pass-rush specialist J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney lined up as ends, were supposed to present a challenge for the Colts. The intensity increased after Hilton called Houston’s NRG Stadium his “second home” and Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph referred to Hilton’s comment as being for “clowns.”
Hilton got things going for the Colts with three catches for 63 yards on their opening drive that ended with an Eric Ebron touchdown. The 63 yards were the most Hilton has ever had on an opening drive in his seven-year NFL career.
It looked as though the Colts made a concerted effort to get Hilton the ball on their opening drive, because it seemed to set the tone for the offense.
What the Colts have continued to show is that their offense is not just predicated on Luck’s right arm. They’re also a running team, which was evident on the second drive, when running back Marlon Mack rushed for 39 of his team-playoff-record 148 yards.
“I played an entire season last year where pretty much everyone knew we were passing the ball. It was a nightmare,” Colts center Ryan Kelly said. “When a team has to defend against the run and defend against a passing game that can torch you down the field, you give Andrew time and you can see what he’s done. So … the Patriots game (in Week 5) and the first time we played the Texans (in Week 4) — where we threw the ball 120-something times in two games — was a wake-up call that we have to do something different from what we were doing. Start running ball.”
The Colts led 21-0 at halftime in a start that couldn’t have been scripted any better for them.
They were just the fourth team in the past 10 playoffs to lead by 21 points in the first half while playing on the road, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
They were also just the fourth team to be perfect on third down (6-of-6) in the first half in the playoffs since at least 2001.
The Colts are the first road team since 1970 to have at least 20 first downs in the first half, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
They are the third team in the Super Bowl era with 200 rushing yards, no sacks allowed and fewer than 10 points allowed in a postseason game.
Simply put: Playing on the road doesn’t bother the Colts.
Having a running game will help with ball control to keep Mahomes and Kansas City’s offense on the sideline next weekend.
And it helps the most that after years of abysmal offensive line play, the Colts have the best offensive line in the NFL. The days of getting bullied at the line of scrimmage are over for the Colts. They gave up an NFL-low 18 sacks during the regular season and carried it over to Saturday, when Luck wasn’t sacked and the Colts rushed for at least 200 yards for the third time this season. Luck was 19-of-32 for 222 yards with two touchdowns and an interception off a tipped pass.
“We know we have an elite quarterback and we can throw it 400 yards and win when we have to,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “But what we talked about is the margin for error in playoff football when you try to do it that way is very thin. But when you can win like this, when you can win running the football and stopping it, that’s just everything.”
Now they’ll put all those things to the test on the road against an impressive Kansas City team.
“Like [GM] Chris [Ballard] said, we’ll never get (caught) with our pants down not protecting Andrew,” Irsay said. “Always protect (Luck) and be great on both sides of the ball up front. That’s what we talked about. The front seven travels on defense. The offensive line travels on offense. Onward we go. (Former Colts coach) Tony Dungy always said, the first is the toughest one. You get the first one and then the sky is the limit. Like (late Oakland owner) Al Davis said, ‘We’re dangerous.'”