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TNF Takeaways: Veteran Trio Guides Colts to Win over Houston

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The Indianapolis Colts were criticized plenty when their veteran-laden team fell to 0-2 for the second straight season. But on a short week, without franchise leader and starting quarterback Andrew Luck, three of those veterans stepped up on Thursday Night Football to silence the doubters and carry the Colts to another divisional win.

Filling in for Luck while fighting through a debilitating illness himself, quarterback Matthew Hasselbeck did an excellent job conducting the offense, and running the system just well enough to win. The 40-year-old went without a turnover for the second straight start and completed 18-of-29 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns.

Both of those touchdown passes went to wide receiver Andre Johnson, who starred in his return to the place where he built his future Hall of Fame career. After hauling in just seven passes total over the first four weeks, including none each of the last two, Johnson had six catches on Thursday, totaling 77 yards. Then there was Frank Gore, who also posted his best game since joining Indianapolis, carrying 22 times for 98 yards and a touchdown.

The performance of that trio was enough to guide Indianapolis to a third straight victory to firmly establish the Colts atop the AFC South.

“A lot of people were wondering what was wrong with us, after the first two games, but you’ve just gotta keep playing. It’s a long season. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. That’s just the way we looked at it. We knew we would get on a roll sooner or later.”

Assisting Indianapolis in getting on that roll was a schedule that set them up with three consecutive divisional games after their 0-2 start. The game against Houston was set to be the most challenging of the bunch, but the Colts controlled it from the outset and then just had to hold off a rally from the Texans to leave Houston with a victory.

Major props are due to Hasselbeck for getting them to that point. Heading into the short week, the assumption around the league was that Andrew Luck would return to the lineup for the Colts after Hasselbeck led Indianapolis to a win over Jacksonville in Week 4. That assumption was strengthened by the fact that a bacterial infection kept Hasselbeck away from the team for the first two days of the week, including a stint in the hospital on Tuesday.

But as the game drew nearer it became clearer to the Colts that Luck’s ailing shoulder would not be ready to go for Thursday’s game. His team left with the alternative of starting recently signed Josh Johnson, Hasselbeck was forced to step up and did so valiantly.

“That’s big of him to go out and put those pads on and play through it,” Johnson said. “I know what kind of guy Matt is. He comes into work everyday and works very hard.”

Perhaps driven by adrenaline alone, Hasselbeck was at his best early in the game leading the Colts on three consecutive scoring drives to establish a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The first of those scores came after an interception by Mike Adams short-circuited Houston’s opening drive. Hasselbeck helmed a short drive into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri connected from 48 yards out to make it 3-0. After a Houston punt, the next Colts drive went the distance: 60 yards in six plays, capped by a four-yard touchdown toss to Johnson.

Then, after another stop by the Indianapolis defense, the offense sucked up nearly half the second quarter clock with a well-balanced third drive, which culminated in another Vinatieri field goal. It seemed like the Colts would dominate the game from there, but one big mistake from the Indy defense allowed Houston to get back into the game at halftime.

After kicking a field goal with 2:12 to go to get on the scoreboard, the Texans got a stop on defense and an opportunity to put more points on the board before the break. However their ensuing drive stalled just short of field goal range and with one second left, they lined up five-wide for a hail mary. All the Indianapolis defense had to do was bat the ball down to go into half with control of the game and possession coming their way. Instead, the ball inexplicably found its way into the hands of rooking Jaelen Strong for a 42-yard touchdown to make it 13-10 at the break.

However, Indianapolis came out firing in the second half to quickly break any momentum built by the Texans with their Hail Houston halftime heave. A 50-yard kick return by Griff Whalen set the Colts up with excellent field position and back-to-back big throws from Hasselbeck, first to Dwayne Allen and then to Andre Johnson put them in the red zone. From there, Gore took the reins with an eight-yard run to the three, and then a scoring run on the next play.

Gore was a force throughout the evening behind a Colts offensive line that looked by far the best it has all season. The Indianapolis front five completely silenced Houston’s vaunted defensive line, limiting star pass rusher J.J. Watt to just two tackles and one quarterback hit. Houston defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was also made a non-factor and didn’t even show up on the stat sheet. Afterward, Gore told the NFL Network crew that the plan put together by Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, in the absence of Luck, was to establish the run and allow that to open things up for the offense. That plan worked to perfection.

“Pep came to me and told me he was going to ride me today,” Gore said. “He just told me to be ready. Our O-line did a great job, receivers did a great job down the field and I just got into a rhythm. I’m a football player. As a back, the more touches you can get, the better you get. As the game gone on, I just got in the zone. Every time I felt like I got the ball, I could make something happen, and that’s what happens.”

After Gore’s score to open the second half, Houston managed to stay in the game with a scoring drive late in the third quarter. But the Colts immediately followed it with their most impressive drive of the night, a 14-play, 80-yard march that soaked up more than eight-and-a-half minutes and went almost five minutes deep into the fourth quarter.

The drive was assisted by some big mistakes from the Texans, including two red zone penalties — one that negated an interception — and after a pass interference call put the Colts on the one-yard-line, Hasselbeck finished it off with another touchdown pass to Johnson to re-establish a 10-point lead. After the game, a clearly drained Hasselbeck fought off tears as CBS’ Tracey Wolfson asked him about what it took for him to play on Thursday after what he’d been through health-wise earlier in the week.

“It wasn’t as hard as I thought [it would be] before the game. I didn’t know if I could make it through … for some unknown reason, I was able to finish. I can’t explain it. It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve got nothing left, probably. I don’t know. It’s been an emotional day.”

The Texans managed to pull within seven points when Nick Novak drilled a 49-yard field goal with just over six minutes to go, and after a stop by their defense, Houston had a shot to go down and tie the game. But an Indianapolis defense that did just enough to get by all night, has one more timely play in them. On 3rd-and-2 from the Indianapolis 38, the Colts put pressure on Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer and forced a poor decision as Hoyer heaved the ball deep, into the waiting arms of Adams for his second pick of the day to seal the game.

For Indianapolis, the win marked a remarkable 16th straight in-division, the longest such streak since the AFL-NFL merger. That outright divisional dominance is probably enough to get the Colts back to the postseason again this year as the AFC South champion, regardless of the chaos happening around them. But one has to wonder about the long-term status of Luck after he was still so injured that a 40-year-old who spent Tuesday in the hospital had to fill in for him on Thursday night.

The Colts have 10 days to get ready for their next game, an AFC Championship Game rematch with the New England Patriots next Sunday in Indianapolis. Their schedule doesn’t get much easier after that, with three games against currently undefeated teams scheduled for November. There’s still a lot to be determined about the Colts in those games ahead of them. But for now, they’re doing just enough to keep their heads above water.

HOUSTON’S QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL CONTINUES TO TURN

After Brian Hoyer led the Texans offense on three touchdown drives in relief of starter Ryan Mallett late in last week’s win loss in the Atlanta Falcons, Houston head coach Bill O’Brien made the questionable decision to go back to Mallett to start on Thursday night.

It didn’t take long for him to reverse course.

Mallett ran Houston’s first three drives on Thursday night and didn’t do much wrong, though he didn’t have much go his way either. He completed 7-of-10 passes for 50 yards, but his mistake-prone team couldn’t get out of their own way. Mallett was also credited with an interception, thought that wasn’t his fault either. He was leading a strong opening drive and had just put the Texans in the red zone when his third down throw went right through the hands of Arian Foster and into the arms of Mike Adams for a pick.

Had that drive ended differently, perhaps the night does as well for Mallett. Instead after he was hit hard on a third down throw just three plays into his fourth drive, which drew a roughing the passer penalty on Indianapolis, Mallett was replaced by Hoyer. The veteran replacement led the Texans to their first points of the night over the rest of that drive and Mallett never got back on the field.

All that said for Mallett, there’s no question that the Houston offense looked better under the guidance of Hoyer. The seven-year veteran was having an incredible game before a bonehead heave with under two minutes to go in the game also found the arms of Mike Adams to thwart the Texans’ best chance to draw even in the game.

Despite taking over midway through the second quarter, Hoyer finished the contest 24-of-31 for 312 yards and two touchdowns along with that lone interception. When asked afterward about who his quarterback is going forward, O’Brien predictably remained non-committal.

“Brian I thought did a good job tonight, but we’ll talk about it. I haven’t even talked to the staff yet about it. We’ll sit down and review the film,” O’Brien said. “I thought Brian did a good job though. He went in there, it wasn’t the easiest of circumstances – other than the last play there where he kind of launched it up there. He probably wants to have that one back, but I thought he did a good job. We’ll review it tomorrow and see where we are at that position.”

Despite the sour taste left by his last throw, Hoyer showed the poise to rally the Texans back again and again even after they fell in that early 13-0 hole. In fact, his 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown toss to Jaelen Strong at the end of the first half might have been the story of the night if Houston had been able to hold on to the momentum. The buzzer-beating score made it 13-10 at the break. However, the inept Texans defense gave up a quick scoring drive to start the second half and negate that progress.

But Hoyer and the Texans kept coming back. He developed an incredible rapport with emerging star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished the evening with 11 catches for 169 yards. Eight of those passes came from Hoyer’s hand. The night might have been even bigger from both players if not for a key offensive pass interference call against Hopkins, which negated a 21-yard gain and short-circuited Houston’s first drive of the second half.

Undeterred, Hoyer marched Houston down the field on the next drive and found Strong for another touchdown to complete it. The two touchdown catches were the first two receptions in the career of the Texans’ first round pick. That score made it 20-17 and probably should have given Houston an earlier chance to tie or take the lead.

But the Texans defense came up short again on the ensuing drive, making mistake after mistake, particularly in the red zone, where they were flagged twice on what ended up being the game-winning drive for the Colts. The first of those, a defensive holding call on Eddie Pleasant, negated a Rahim Moore interception that would’ve given Houston the ball down just three with plenty of time left. Moments later, Kareem Jackson was flagged for pass interference after a needless shove to the back of Indianapolis tight end Dwayne Allen, who had no chance to catch the ball anyway. That set the Colts up on the goal line and they scored on third down.

The ineptitude of the Texans defense stood out throughout the night. They failed to get pressure on Hasselbeck, failed to slow down Gore and allowed Johnson to roam free throughout the evening. The only Indianapolis playmaker that Houston did well on was receiver T.Y. Hilton, but even he got a big play late, when he burned Jackson on a third down post route to clinch victory for the Colts.

J.J. Watt was mostly absent but for a few tackles and one questionable call, but a costly one nonetheless, on a shove to Hasselbeck that resulted in a roughing the passer penalty. Jadeveon Clowney was likewise limited. He flashed on one drive during the second quarter, where he registered two big tackles on Gore, but otherwise his only contribution was a costly facemask penalty when he brought down Gore on what ended up being the game-winning drive.

Without considerable talent at quarterback, the Texans were going to have to lean heavily on defense and their ability to run the football this season to stand a chance at competing. But neither worked out well on Thursday night. Foster carried 19 times for just 41 yards, though he did make an impact in the passing game, hauling in nine passes for 77 yards through the air. But the defense couldn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain either, making the strong play of Hoyer in Mallett’s stead effectively useless.

Hoyer’s one mistake late in the game proved costly, as Houston had a golden opportunity to tie the game on that drive against a Colts defense that had been getting by on smoke and mirrors all evening. But the truth is, the Texans likely aren’t even in that spot if not for what Hoyer did successfully prior to that, leading them back multiple times.

With a quarterback who is obviously limited talent-wise, you take the bad with the good. Hoyer is currently presenting more good than bad, while the opposite can be said for Mallett, who steamed on the sideline for the rest of the game after being removed. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher noted at halftime that the Texans may have “lost” Mallett after his latest removal. But does it really matter? It’s time for them to stick with Hoyer and see where that takes them. More importantly, they need to get the rest of their house in order. Perhaps a permanent change in leadership at the most important position on the field would help in that regard.

Who knows if it can fix what’s currently ailing their defense, but the schedule gets easier ahead with Jacksonville, Miami and Tennessee ahead, perhaps offering a chance for Houston to get healthy. At 1-4, they need to soon, or they’re looking at another season down the drain.

NFL AM NEWS AND NOTES

Aside from one of the most entertaining Thursday night games of the season so far, there was plenty going on around the league on Thursday.

The Miami Dolphins continued to revamp their coaching staff by firing defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. The firing comes on the heels of the team’s decision to part ways with head coach Joe Philbin earlier this week. Interim coach Dan Campbell made the call to get rid of Coyle. The Dolphins invested heavily in their defense this offseason, only to see it ranked 30th in the league after four games, so the change was warranted, especially after players began to question Coyle’s scheme and playcalling. Defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo will now serve as the team’s defensive coordinator.

The New England Patriots are known for their ability to plug and play at the running back position, but they’ve been so impressed by Dion Lewis this season, they decided to make a long-term investment in him. New England signed Lewis to a two-year contract extension on Thursday worth nearly $5 million. It’s a fitting deal for the fourth-year back, who hadn’t played a NFL snap since 2012 before becoming the Patriots’ starter this year. He’s rewarded their faith over the first three games with 30 carries for 146 yards and 15 catches for 179 more.

Elsewhere around the league, injury reports are starting to take shape for the Week 5 slate.

The banged up Bills offense is expected to be without running backs Karlos Williams (concussion) and LeSean McCoy (hamstring) on Sunday and although wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) returned to practice on Thursday on a limited basis, he’s also expected to miss the game against the Titans.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee cleared concussion protocol and returned to practice on Thursday, putting him in position to possibly play this week against New England. The Cowboys are getting Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain back from suspension this week, so Lee’s presence would put their defense that much closer to full strength.

The status of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (hamstring) remains up in the air after the running back was a limited participant in practice on Thursday. The story was the same for Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey (hamstring). Meanwhile, in Baltimore, wide receiver Steve Smith (back) has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Browns.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys