HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 11: Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Texans came undone in the fourth quarter. Nothing said overtime would be different.
“I felt like a tie was better than a potential loss.”
That singular sentence from Texans head coach Lovie Smith reverberated throughout NRG Stadium Sunday afternoon, part of his opening statement to the media following Houston’s 20-20 tie with the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans entered the fourth quarter with a 20-3 lead before the offense got stuck in neutral and left the defense on fumes late in the game, struggling to hang on.
While the strip sack by EJ Speed on Davis Mills is the play everyone will focus on (deservedly so), there was more to the collapse than that moment. Let’s peel the onion back a little.
The Texans offense had just completed a 12-play, 58-yard drive that took 6:30 off the clock, spanning into the fourth quarter. The drive stalled at the Colts 36 yard line. Ka’imi Fairbairn has a big leg, is 8-12 on 50+ yard field goal attempts the last two seasons, and kicked a Texans record 61-yard field goal this past December against Seattle. A 54-yard field goal attempt is certainly within his range, especially up 20-3 at that point in the game. Smith chose to take a delay of game penalty and give his punter more room to punt than attempt the field goal.
This is where the game begins to shift.
A field goal would have pushed the lead to a full 20 points at 23-3 and further deflated the Colts. Instead, Indianapolis got a reprieve and the ball back. The Colts’ offense picked up the tempo a bit, and 9 of their 10 offensive plays on that drive were passes. It was an 11-play, 76-yard drive that lasted 4:02. The Texans defense held their ground in goal to go, defending three straight passes to the end zone and forcing the Colts to settle for a 27-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal. They expended a lot of energy in that goal-line situation and held their ground for the second time in the game. The defense was flying to the ball, but you knew they needed a rest afterward. They didn’t get one.
This is where the game drastically shifted.
On the Texans’ second play of their next possession, a miscommunication on the offensive line left EJ Speed completely unblocked around the left side. Speed landed a huge blindside sack on Davis Mills, and the ball came out. DeForest Buckner recovered, and the Colts were in business 1st & 10 at the Texans’ 20-yard line. The defense was now back on the field and back in their own red zone in 0:55 seconds of game time.
The Texans’ defense was still trying to catch its collective breath as the Colts needed just 4 plays and 2:07 to get in the end zone and make it a 20-13 game. Indy was buzzing, the Texans were reeling, and the whole world could see it. The next drive was telling.
When the Texans got the ball back with 7:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, they got extremely conservative. Four consecutive running plays on a day where they struggled to run the ball with success (Burkhead and Pierce combined for 25 carries and 78 yards, essentially 3 YPC) had them throw their only pass of the drive on a 3rd & 8 at their own 38-yard line. The offense was stone stagnant, the play calling as conservative and predictable as could be. The Texans took 3:13 off the clock with those five plays, but clearly, they needed to be more assertive in their attempts to move the football. This is the moment, on this drive, the Texans coaching staff either started coaching scared or knew their team was out of gas, and they were just trying to hang on for dear life.
A still-tired defense was asked to take the field yet again. For the first time in the game, the Colts were able to consistently gash the Texans on the ground. Jonathan Taylor finished with rushing 161 yards, 63 of which came with under four minutes to go in the game and overtime, and 49 of those 63 came on this drive. The Colts ripped through an exhausted Texans defense for 80 yards in 7 plays and did it in 2:35. Taylor got those 49 yards on 4 straight carries of 9, 13, 13, and 14 yards. The run defense, which held its own to this point, was getting pulverized. Matt Ryan would hit Michael Pittman for a 15-yard strike, and the game was now tied with 1:54 remaining.
From the start of the fourth quarter to this point in the game, with 1:54 remaining, the Texans had run ten plays for 10 yards. The Colts ran 22 plays for 176 yards. The Colts were rampaging, and the Texans had no gas in the tank. There were still nearly two minutes to go.
The Texans got the ball back, and despite being supremely conservative on the previous drive that chewed clock at least, this time they threw a pair of quick passes on 2nd and 3rd down that took less than 5 seconds off the clock they so desperately needed to run out. The coach was clearly hoping that his offense, which had seen nearly no work the entire fourth quarter, could pull it together for one final drive to get in field goal range and take home a game that seemed well in hand entering the fourth quarter. They failed miserably. Thirty-eight seconds later, they were punting again.
This seems like the moment where Lovie knows his team has nothing left, and all he can do is hope they hang on for a tie.
“Defensively, we weren’t really stopping them an awful lot there at the end,” Lovie said in the postgame press conference. Twenty-two plays, and 176 yards is an average of 8 yards per play. The Colts finished the game with 517 yards of offense. Through the first three-quarters of the game, they only had 240. That equates to 277 yards gained by the Colts solely in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Texans’ defense was running on fumes. The offense was stuck in neutral. It seemed inevitable this collapse would end in a loss.
Taking over at their own 9, and with 1:05 on the clock, there wasn’t enough time for the Colts to get into field goal range. The Texans had dodged a bullet. They were going to overtime. They would get the ball first. Could they find the energy to get one more drive together?
The answer was a resounding no.
The pass protection, which had been very good for three quarters, and to this point only allowed the one (game-changing) sack in the fourth quarter to EJ Speed, gave up two more sacks on the first overtime possession, and took a false start penalty to boot. The Texans started the drive at their own 40 after the Colts kickoff went out of bounds. Three plays later, they were punting from their own 24. In 1:33, Houston had lost 16 yards.
Now it was up to the defense, a defense that played so valiantly for three and a half quarters but was now completely exhausted. The offense hung the defense out to dry the entire fourth quarter and just did so again to start overtime.
The Colts took over at their own 31-yard line. They drove all the way to the Houston 16 before back-to-back plays by Jon Greenard (3-yard TFL on Jonathan Taylor) and Jerry Hughes (sack of Matt Ryan for a 5-yard loss) pushed Indy back to the Texans 24. The Colts would attempt and miss a 42-yard field goal, as Rodrigo Blankenship left the kick wide right. The Texans dodged yet another bullet.
The Texans got the ball back at their own 32 with 1:57 remaining in overtime. Could they just get in field goal range?
Mills hit Rex Burkhead for an 8-yard gain, but then Justin Britt was flagged for a false start. Mills then connected with Brandin Cooks for 9 yards and Chris Moore for 9 more. The Texans were moving the ball! They had 2nd & 1 from the Colts’ 47. Field goal range was close. There was still 1:06 to go.
After an incompletion, Lovie would make a decision that perhaps changed the whole drive.
“I felt like we had two plays, that it was two-down territory…” Smith said in the postgame about this situation.
On 3rd & 1 from the Colts’ 47, Houston decided to run off right guard to try to get the first down. Logic would indicate that their wrecking ball rookie Dameon Pierce would get the call on an absolutely-got-to-have-this short yardage play.
Rex Burkhead was given the ball. He lost 2 yards. That loss of yardage changed Lovie’s mind as far as whether this was two down territory, and on 4th & 3, Smith punted.
The decision to punt infuriated media and fans alike. Go for it! What do you have to lose? (Besides a game, of course).
So why did Lovie punt? This was his explanation, “Because I felt like a tie was better than a loss in that situation. It’s a decision that you make. If you would guarantee that we were going to get it, then it was good. But if you miss it right there and they had stuffed us on the play, they have one play, and they’re in position. It’s not like we were playing our best defense at the time. We were drained.”
The three most important words here are “we were drained.” After being in control for three quarters, his team was listing hard and couldn’t absorb another blow without sinking. Giving the ball back at midfield if they failed to convert on 4th down was a far more haunting outcome to Smith than running the clock down and punting. The punt pinned the Colts at their own 6-yard line with only 19 seconds to go in overtime. The plan to hang on for dear life and escape without the loss succeeded.
There was nothing about the Texans play from the beginning of the fourth quarter on that suggested Lovie should have any expectation his team could execute a sustained drive or that his defense could prevent one.
People have called the Texans decision to play for the tie “cowardly,” but maybe it was actually the smart decision. Judging by their play, there was no other decision to make short of asking for a loss.
Smith made sure his team has more positives following a game they controlled for the first three quarters against a team that blew their doors off twice last season, 31-3 and 31-0. The bottom line is Lovie knew his team had nothing left. He couldn’t ask them for anymore; there was no more to give. Salvaging a tie may leave a sour taste in the mouth of many Texans fans, but it tastes way better than a loss.
As Smith stated, “In an ideal world, you don’t want a loss, you want a win, but if you can’t get the win, sometimes you settle for the tie. A lot of football left to go in the season.”
Sixteen more games, in fact, to go in the season. A season in which the Texans, expected by many to have the worst record in the league, do not have a loss.