Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton keep surprising Colts in AFC playoff race

HOUSTON -- For the first three series, the Indianapolis Colts sputtered, sputtered and sputtered along to three-and-out punts.

They couldn't run the ball. They couldn't catch the ball, either. Things were setting up to be a long afternoon at NRG Stadium against the Houston Texans.

But then it happened.

Colts coach Frank Reich adapted to what the Texans were doing by going up-tempo and putting the ball in quarterback Andrew Luck's hands to let him do what he does best -- pick apart the defense.

The Colts ripped off 17 straight points and didn't look back, putting an end to Houston's nine-game winning streak 24-21 and, more importantly, keeping their playoff hopes alive with three weeks left in the season.

"We started [Houston's winning] streak, so it was only right that we ended the streak," Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "Came here with the mindset that we weren't going to be denied."

With just three games left in the regular season, the battle for the final playoff spot in the AFC is as murky as Florida swamp water, as the Colts are one of four 7-6 teams fighting for the final AFC playoff berth. The Colts have a 32 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

It's unclear whether the Colts will make the playoffs in what has become a wild conference race, but on Sunday they showed what they're capable of doing. That's why it was baffling that they were shut out against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

"Let me just tell you, as an offensive coach after you throw up a goose egg, it's a long week and there's a lot of pressure on you next week," Reich said. "You start off the way we started off, it was not what we were hoping for, but guys believe."

Trying to mix in the run with the pass was not working for the Colts early, so Reich went with more three-receiver sets, with Luck taking the snap out of the shotgun. Their first series going that way was successful, as they went 61 yards, but the drive ended with an interception off a dropped pass by Zach Pascal.

The confidence was there for the Colts, though.

"Felt like Andrew was in a groove," Reich said. "Felt like our O-line was in a groove, tiring them out. They weren't getting pressure on us. Andrew was picking them apart. That drive was to get something going."

Their first play on their next series was Luck connecting on a 60-yard pass to Hilton, and they scored a touchdown on the following play. In running off 17 straight points, they went from looking like they would struggle moving the ball to not having a problem against the Texans.

"You just need one play to get everybody going," Colts tight end Eric Ebron said. "When T.Y. did his thing, you just felt a breeze of energy come through the whole offense. We started playing football."

There was a little doubt Hilton would be available to play. He went into the game listed as questionable after not practicing twice last week. Hilton said after the game there was no doubt in his mind he would be available.

That's a good thing, because Hilton dominated the Texans at NRG Stadium throughout his seven-year NFL career.

Luck finished 27-of-41 for 399 yards and two touchdowns. He had 385 of those yards in the final three quarters. Hilton was his primary target throughout game.

The receiver had nine catches for 199 yards to give him 41 receptions for 932 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games played in Houston.

"This is a second home," Hilton said, laughing.

It was probably only fitting that the Colts found themselves in a position of needing a first down to keep a drive alive and potentially win the game against the Texans after what happened in the Week 4 match up when Reich went for it and failed in their own territory in the overtime loss.

The Colts had the ball third-and-1 from their own 48-yard line with two minutes to go in the game. Get the first down and run the clock out for the victory. Fail to get it and give the DeShaun Watson and the Texans the ball back with a chance to win the game.

There was no failing this time, as Luck used a hard count to draw Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney offsides and seal the game for Indianapolis.

"We were getting ready to call timeout," Reich said. "It didn't look like they were going to jump. But credit Andrew and how he handled it. Came out, broke the huddle like we were going to speed snap it. We didn't. They held on. Sometimes what you do is you hold and try to get them to soften and then snap it at the last second. So he hung with it, hung with it and eventually got it."

There's three games left in the regular season, and the Colts' performance on the road against a very good Houston defense should scare the AFC's top contenders.