These were the two big questions coming into the Colts-Texans wild-card matchup: Could Houston's defense slow down Andrew Luck and that balanced offense? And could Indianapolis get after Deshaun Watson, who plays behind one of the league's worst offensive line?
It took about 10 minutes into the first quarter to get the answer to the first query: In a word, nope. The Texans' defense had no answers for Luck and Co. And by halftime, it became painfully apparent that it just wasn't Watson's day. When it was over, the Colts cruised to a 21-7 win and the Texans were again left to wonder where it all went wrong.
Be very afraid of this Colts team
Unlike previous versions of this team, which relied mostly on the offense to do the heavy lifting because the defense was rarely good enough to hold onto a lead, this group is completely different. It starts with general manager Chris Ballard, who spent the offseason fixing the offensive line. No. 6 overall pick Quenton Nelson is already the best guard in football. No, really. He's an animal who dominates on a weekly basis.
Here's Nelson manhandling Jadeveon Clowney in the first half:
How good has this offensive line been? A season ago, the unit ranked 32nd in pass blocking, according to Football Outsiders, after giving up 56 sacks. In 2018? They improved to second, allowing just 18(!) sacks.
So the math goes something like this: a top-flight offensive line, plus the return of a better-than-ever Andrew Luck, plus a complementary running game and effective play-action passing game equals a team that started 1-5 and has gone 10-1 since. The Colts do so many things well, and the Texans' seventh-ranked defense was helpless to do anything about it.
It started on the very first drive, when the Colts converted on two consecutive third downs, Luck then found T.Y. Hilton on a 38-yard pass that set up this Eric Ebron touchdown:
Ebron, who was considered a bust in Detroit, looks every bit the first-round talent in his first season in Indy.
The Texans had no answer for Hilton on that first drive either, as he had 63 receiving yards, the most in his career on an opening drive.
The Texans, looking to respond, instead went three-and-out and the Colts got right back to work. Nine plays and 74 yards later and the score was 14-0 thanks to a Marlon Mack touchdown jaunt.
Then, midway through the second quarter, Indy again went on a long drive that culminated with an end zone celebration. The specifics: seven plays, 65 yards, and Dontrelle Inman WIDE open for six.
The Colts finished 6 for 6 on third-down conversions in the first half while the Texans, who were thoroughly outplayed, went just 2 of 8. And that brings us to Indianapolis' defense. That group ranked 10th among all defenses this season under first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus, a huge improvement over their 27th-place ranking in 2017. We saw the manifestation of that turnaround on the Texans' second drive. Facing fourth-and-4 from the Colts' 45-yard line, cornerback Kenny Moore picked off Watson. Watch it closely below; Moore comes off his responsibility outside, steps in front of tight end Ryan Griffin, fooling Watson in the process.
It was nothing complicated -- the Colts just dropped eight men into coverage -- but Moore did his job and he was rewarded. For Watson, it was his first pick since Week 11, a span of 215 pass attempts:
That was a harbinger of things to come.
It's another playoff letdown by the Texans
Deshaun Watson was supposed to be better than this. The Ringer's Kevin Clark wrote just how consistent the second-year quarterback has been -- not just in the NFL, or at Clemson, but going back to high school. That's how far back you have to go to find the last game Watson lost by more than seven points.
At the half, the conversation was about the latest Texans' playoff implosion, this time a 21-0 deficit heading into the third quarter, starting with Watson having just one successful come-from-behind-win when trailing by 14 points or more. That came in the 2017 national title game against Alabama.
Texans down 21-0 in the 2nd quarter.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 5, 2019
The last time a Wild Card team trailed at home by 21 points?
The Texans in the 2015 season, when they lost 30-0 to the Chiefs.
In NFL postseason history, teams leading by 21 or more points at halftime are 49-2. The two comebacks were led by Frank Reich in 1993 and Andrew Luck in 2014.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 5, 2019
There was no rewriting history on Saturday evening.
For as good as Watson was in 2018, he wasn't at his best against the Colts. He was sacked just three times -- he was sacked four times or more on 10 occasions during the regular season -- but was fooled by Moore on the first-half interception and missed open receivers throughout the game, including DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone late in the first half and Vyncint Smith on a late fourth-quarter drive that all but doomed any chances of a comeback.
Both those misfires came on fourth down. There was another one too; a fourth-and-1 from the Colts' 9-yard line with 1:24 to go in the first half and trailing 21-0. Instead of running Watson up the middle to move the sticks, the Texans emptied the backfield, the Colts dropped eight into coverage, and the best scoring opportunity of the game to that point was lost as the ball fell harmlessly to the ground in front of a diving Hopkins.
There was also no running game to speak of. This isn't surprising -- Houston ranked 26th in rushing -- and the team got down early, but it still would've made Watson's job less tedious. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue combined for 26 yards and Watson led the team with 76 rushing yards, almost all coming in the second half during a brief stretch when the offense showed some life.
But it didn't last long -- or at least long enough to get the Texans back in the game. And when the Colts got the ball back with 3:50 to go, they leaned on Marlon Mack, who became the first running back this season to rush for more than 100 yards against Houston's defense (he finished with 148).
If you're a disappointed Texans fan, here's your silver lining: Fix the offensive line and everything changes. Look no further than the Colts for proof of this.
Indy heads to Kansas City
As the sixth seed, the Colts' victory guarantees them a trip to Arrowhead Stadium where they'll face Patrick Mahomes and that high-flying Chiefs offense on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:35 p.m. ET, a game you can stream on fuboTV (Try for free). The winner of that game will head to the AFC Championship Game where they'll face the Patriots, Ravens or Chargers.