Colts Turn Up Tempo to Stay Unbeaten
"I wouldn't call it fun," said tight end Dallas Clark, who caught 11 passes in the first half and 14 -- for 119 yards -- in the game. "When you run 60 plays in the first half, you're going to feel that on Wednesday and Thursday. But the win makes it feel a lot better."
The win, a hold-your-breath 20-17 squeaker that wasn't assured until Houston's last-second field goal hooked wide left, improved the Colts to 8-0 and kept alive their hopes to repeat the Patriots' 16-0 regular season of two years ago. The Patriots are the next obstacle in Indy's path, heading here to Lucas Oil Stadium next Sunday night for a showdown of AFC powers. But for the Colts this day was all about holding off the very game division-rival Texans, and the insane early pace was a key aspect of that plan.
"That was by design, and it was almost like our two-minute operation in terms of the tempo of the game," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "Sometimes, if you go fast enough, quickly enough, you can slow down some pass rushers. And they've got some pretty good ones."
The Colts were very concerned about the Houston defense. Manning pointed out after the game that Houston came in leading the league in "three-and-outs" -- series in which the offense fails to get a first down and has to punt the ball after only three plays. To combat this, the Colts made the decision Sunday morning to come out in a souped-up, no-huddle from the opening kick.
"We knew they were going to go no-huddle, but man, they were high-intensity," Texans safety Bernard Pollard said. "And I'm not going to lie -- they caught us off-guard."
Houston countered with a nickel defense, which makes sense in the abstract if you're convinced the other team is going to throw on every play. Problem was, with the nickel back covering slot receiver Austin Collie and the safeties staying back to defend against the deep ball, Dallas Clark spent the whole game matched up against a linebacker. And that's a mismatch.
"When we get an opportunity to get him on a linebacker, most of the time Dallas is going to fare pretty well," Caldwell said.
And they milked it. Manning targeted Clark eight times in the first quarter, and Clark caught all eight. He targeted him five more times in the second quarter, and Clark caught three of those. At halftime, Clark had 11 catches, putting him more than halfway toward Terrell Owens' NFL record of 20 catches in a single game.
But the funny thing was, in spite of possessing the ball for 16:52 of the first half, and in spite of moving the ball down the field with relative ease until they got near the goal line, the Colts' halftime lead was a mere 13-3. And after the Texans dominated the time of possession in the third quarter, they were able to open the fourth with a Steve Slaton touchdown run that put Houston on top 17-13.
"We didn't finish drives like we're capable of doing," Caldwell said. "That's a concern."
Oh they came back, of course, as Manning always seems to. He marched them right back down the field, mixing in a couple of run plays this time and scoring on a Joseph Addai touchdown run with 7:16 left in the game. The frenetic pace of a first half that saw Manning throw the ball 40 times was gone, replaced by a more humble and plodding game plan. And the win wasn't sealed until the injury-riddled defense managed to hold on at the end and Kris Brown's 42-yard field goal attempt as time expired missed to the left. But they did win, and they're still undefeated. And while they'll admit they have plenty to work on, the Colts would tell you they won at least in part because of how much they respect the Texans.
"We were just able to hang on and find enough gas in the tank to finish it," Clark said. "A couple of plays here or there, and they're the ones celebrating in the locker room."
So now it's on to next week, when Tom Brady and the Patriots will try to take advantage of the injury-depleted Indianapolis secondary in ways in which Matt Schaub and the Texans could not. What Caldwell and Manning come up with for the Patriots remain to be seen. Do they dare ramp up the tempo the way they did this week, enticing Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker into a potentially classic (and potentially dangerous) shootout? Or do they dial it back a little bit in an effort to keep the Patriot offense off the field?
These are questions for later in the week. As they dressed and headed out after their hard-fought win against the Texans on Sunday, the Colts were a happy but very tired bunch, and they weren't thinking about next Sunday night yet.
"Coach told us we get about 12 hours to enjoy this one," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. "And I'm going to take my full 12."