“That game,” Colts tight end Eric Ebron said, “was big for both of us. Houston [0-3 entering the game] went on this crazy run [nine-game win streak], and for us, it was a big moment because it carried over to the rest of the season.”
The two teams meet again, 54 weeks later, on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), with first place in the AFC South on the line. Let's take a deep dive into Colts coach Frank Reich's decision and how it changed the course of the season for two teams.
The score was tied at 34 in overtime. The Colts' offense was facing fourth-and-4 on their 43. Both teams had kicked field goals in overtime, meaning the game would end with the next score or in a tie if neither team scored. The Colts forced the Texans to call a timeout because they didn’t have the right personnel on the field. Still thinking they could draw the Texans offside with a hard count, Reich kept his offense on the field before calling a timeout own. He then brought the offense back on the field with 27 seconds remaining.
Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni: “We knew what it was going to be, right? Either win that game or tie that game based off of the time, and we wanted to win that game. I know it was what we were thinking as far as our play. I mean, we talked about the play. We talked about who we wanted to throw the play to. It was just more about, 'Hey, we’re going for it.'"
Colts receiver Chester Rogers: “You have to take chances in this league. It’s hard to win games in this league. When you have an opportunity like that against a good team in overtime, we’re going for the gusto. We’re trying to win. I love when a coach makes a call like that.”
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt: "I remember respecting their decision to go for it and then obviously being happy about it after, the way it all shook out.”
The Colts went with three receivers, one tight end and a running back. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had to try to get the first down without receiver T.Y. Hilton, his favorite target. Hilton, who had four catches for 115 yards and a touchdown in the game, left in the fourth quarter because of a hamstring injury. Luck, who was in the shotgun, made a quick throw to Rogers, who was lined up in single coverage against Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, after Houston dropped eight players into coverage. The ball landed at Rogers' feet.
Rogers: “[Luck] knew what he wanted to run. He wanted me to run that route, I had confidence I was going to make the catch, and we had confidence that we were going to win the game. Frank believed in us, and we believed in ourselves. It didn’t work out.”
Houston coach Bill O’Brien: “It's called a 'got to have it' situation. They've got to have that play, we've got to have that play, and so we try to do the best we can to study those types of plays just like everybody else does. We don't have the market cornered on these things. We're just trying to do the best we can to put our players in the position to make those plays.”
Luck (after the game): "Love it. Love it. We're not going to play for a tie, and I think everybody in that locker room loves that. I love that. Now we have to execute. I have to throw a better ball. We all know where we have to improve. That attitude, we can get behind that."
Watt: “It was a quick pass. We as pass-rushers didn’t really have a chance to get there. All I remember is turning around and seeing the ball on the ground. I think it was [Joseph] that had broken it. And from there, we pretty much knew that our offense was going to take care of it. Ka’imi [Fairbairn] was going to kick it and score.”
Ebron: “People were complaining about it, but whatever, we just didn’t execute it. Had we had executed it, people would have had a different story. That kind of instilled in us, 'Hey, we’re going for it. We have to get it because he’s putting that much faith and that much trust in us.'”
How the Texans won the game
It took only one play for the Texans to get in field goal range. Houston All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins got inside of Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and made a 24-yard reception to get to the Colts’ 19-yard line. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson spiked the ball to stop the clock with three seconds left. Reich tried to ice Fairbairn with another timeout, but like the fourth-down play, the move didn’t work, and Fairbairn made a 37-yard field goal to win the game.
Hopkins: “The coverage that I seen, I kind of felt like I was going to be open if Deshaun and I was on the same page. They put the linebacker over me, who’s a great player who they trusted, and I barely got inside of him and was able to kind of split the defense. And I knew I didn’t want to go down right away. I knew I didn’t have that much time, but I knew if I kind of stayed in the middle of the field, I could hurry up and give the ref the ball, so I was thinking, try to stay in the middle of the field, and not run sideways, because that’s more time I’m going to have to get the ball back. So I was thinking, get the ball, get to the middle of the field so I can get the ball to the ref. They only put one guy on me, so it was a great throw, a great read by Deshaun on seeing the guy who was on me and getting me the ball.”
O’Brien: "We were excited. We knew we had a chance to get the ball right there, good field position. I remember that and had a good idea what we wanted to call. Deshaun and offense, Hop, did a great job."
Leonard: “We hurt. We loved [that Reich] went for it, and we loved that it was in the defense’s hands. That was one of the plays that hurt me the most. They went empty, me and [Hopkins], same play I made in Houston [in Week 14]. He beat me on the same route to get them in field goal position. You learn from your mistakes and get better.”
Fairbairn: “If you look back … there was a timeout right before, and I got a practice swing, which helped.”
Reich wasted no time in addressing his decision in his postgame news conference. “I’ll just address it now: I’m not playing to tie,” he said at the time. “I’ll do that 10 times out of 10. That’s just the way it’s got to roll.” Colts players and staff didn't second-guess Reich privately or publicly in the locker room after the game.
The victory started Houston’s nine-game winning streak, which was ended by the Colts in Week 14, and the Texans won the AFC South with an 11-5 record. The Colts lost two more games after the Houston loss to drop to 1-5, but the loss that afternoon carried more weight for the organization morally than it did in the standings, and they won nine of their final 10 games to finish 10-6. In the rubber match of the season, the Colts beat the Texans 21-7 in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs.
Watt: “After an 0-3 start, you just want to win. Anyway or how, and then a win can get you rolling. It got us rolling to eight more wins after that in a row. So who knows what would have happened if it was a tie or a loss? But we’re happy it wasn’t.”
Colts running back Nyheim Hines: “As a first-year coach, that really set the tempo for our team and our mentality. We’re a physical team, and he has a lot of belief in us. He said it before that game last year, but talking about it and showing it are two different things. He showed it there. That was the turning point in our season for us.”
Colts GM Ballard (in season-ending news conference): “I’ll never forget, sitting up in the box, I said, 'Well, one thing about Frank, he’s got conviction. He’s going to rip it.' Then he’s in the press conference with all of you, and he owns it. This is what I stand for. It’s what we’re going to do. A lot of people get up when things don’t go their way, and they try to spin it. ... Frank, I knew from that point on, he had the locker room. He had them. Because he believed in them, and he supported them, and he took the bullet for them. That’s the beautiful thing. That is a unique thing in our profession. It just is. Look, sometimes God does things for you that you don’t deserve, and I feel very fortunate that Frank’s our coach.”
Reich: “As a coach, you own the decision that you make, good or bad. You’re making the decision you make in the moment because you think that’s the best thing for the team to win the game. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t work. But what I think works is that when you know the why behind the decision and there’s a belief and confidence and conviction in what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. I think that mentality is what carries beyond that one play.”