INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Colts wanted to feel better about themselves. An opponent whose season keeps getting worse represented the perfect tonic.
Andrew Luck passed for 180 yards and two touchdowns as the Colts strolled to a 25-3 rout of the Houston Texans (2-12) on Sunday.
"We needed it," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said of the Colts' first win by more than a one-possession margin since September. "Got off to a better start. Defense was outstanding. We'll keep grinding away. It was a good win."
The Colts (9-5) were missing nine starters but breezed past a floundering Houston team that lost its 12th straight. T.Y. Hilton had a career-high eight catches for 78 yards and Griff Whalen, a teammate of Luck's at Stanford, caught his first career touchdown after being signed from the practice squad the day before the game.
Resilient Indianapolis improved to 10-0 following losses under Pagano.
Since going 6-2 in the first half of the season, Indianapolis had lost three of its last five, struggling with injuries and unproductive play in the first half of games. But the Colts raced to a 20-3 halftime lead, got two interceptions from cornerback Darius Butler and limited the Texans to 239 yards of total offense.
Houston (2-12) played its first game under interim head coach Wade Phillips. Owner Bob McNair fired longtime coach Gary Kubiak after the Texans committed 14 penalties at Jacksonville on Dec. 5. The change did nothing to spark the Texans, who cost themselves 114 yards on 14 more penalties in another ugly defeat.
"It's hard to explain," said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who drew one of Houston's three defensive flags in the opening period. "Extra competitiveness gets us penalties. At the beginning it hurt us and extended Indianapolis' drives."
Luck drove the Colts 80 yards in 11 plays on the day's opening drive, capping it with a 14-yard TD pass to Whalen, who set career highs with four receptions for 45 yards.
Coming off back-to-back AFC South titles, Houston had ceded the division crown to the Colts, who clinched last week. They improved to 5-0 within the division and 12-0 all-time against the Texans in Indianapolis.
Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis set franchise career and single-season sack records in style in the third quarter. Known for stripping the ball from the hands of quarterbacks, Mathis knocked it loose from Houston's Case Keenum in the end zone resulting in a safety. Mathis reached 16.5 sacks on the season and 108 in his career, besting marks previously held by former rush partner Dwight Freeney.
"I feel honored to be in the stadium to see that," Luck said. "Years from now I'll tell grandkids I played with Robert Mathis. He's everything you could ask for."
Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals of 37, 43 and 40 yards for Indianapolis, which travels to Kansas City next week in a possible playoff preview.
Running back Ben Tate rushed 16 times for 72 yards for Houston. Following cornerback Johnathan Joseph's interception of Luck, Randy Bullock's 49-yard field goal made it 7-3. The Texans never scored again and host Denver next week before concluding at Tennessee.
"We've got to keep fighting," Phillips said
What the Colts said:
--"I don't think we're that fickle where we have to lose confidence after a bad game. But this was a good start against a division team. Hopefully we can get a little mojo going through these next two games." - quarterback Andrew Luck.
--"Great job by (wide receiver) Griff (Whalen). Not surprised. He prepares like a starter every week. It pays off in situations like this when you're a little thin on personnel. A lot of big catches. He deserves it. He deserves all the good things." - Luck.
--"We talked all week about coming back to start building momentum and gain a spark. Proud that this team found a way. This was something very positive for our football team moving forward into the playoffs." - Coach Chuck Pagano.
-- "Trent (Richardson) has been practicing extremely well. Trending in the right direction. You're going to see him do nothing but take off from here. With the positive things that happened to him today, it's great for his confidence. He's feeling more comfortable." - Coach Chuck Pagano
What the Texas said
"It hurts. I was bad today. I let my teammates down. I let coaches down. I'm letting the Texans fans down. They deserve better. If I knew what it was I would tell you. There is stuff coaches tell me during the week multiple times and in the game I just make the wrong decision. A lot of the sacks and hits tonight were totally on me." - quarterback Case Keenum.
Two things we learned
About the Texans
1. Case Keenum continues at quarterback, but he may not be the right passer for the franchise. "Things are tough right now. We have no choice no choice but to continue to battle on and stick together and push forward. I think we will do that."
The Texans do have a choice at quarterback. Keenum has a good arm, and Houston wants two more weeks to see if there is a future in him. Undrafted out of Houston, the local product has six interceptions in his last five games and has been held under 200 yards passing in four of the last five.
"I feel like I am a winner and to not be able to translate it is tough," Keenum said. It's looking more and more likely that Houston's first-round pick, which is currently in line to be No. 1 overall, could be used on a quarterback prospect such as Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.
2. Playing without starters with Pro Bowl resumes such as running back Arian Foster, linebacker Brian Cushing and tight end Owen Daniels plus safety Danieal Manning, Houston had holes to fill but it's clear the talent around centerpieces J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson was already depleted. Reinforcements are necessary for the Texans to return to their winning ways.
Houston got only four hits on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, who had been one of the most frequently hit quarterbacks in the league. Outside of center Chris Myers, Houston's offensive line play has fallen off, especially on the right side with guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Derek Newton. Newton was called for a false start and a holding penalty which Indy declined. In the offseason, Houston let safety Glover Quinn leave in free agency. Ed Reed, who has nine Pro Bowl appearances, was signed to replace Quinn but has since been released. "We're a bad team," left guard Wade Smith said.
What we learned about the Colts
1. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had come under fire in recent weeks. Hired in the offseason to replace Bruce Arians, who left to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Hamilton's offense had averaged just 19.8 points a game over the previous five. He had his best day calling plays on Sunday, opening in the no-huddle, employing bunch formations and getting halfback Trent Richardson the ball in space.
"Just looking for a spark," coach Chuck Pagano said of Hamilton's wrinkles. "We've been looking for a way to get the offense going and just really looking for a way to get started faster. It was obviously a big bonus and a confidence-builder."
On second-and-goal from the 9 in the second quarter, Hamilton had quarterback Andrew Luck line up in a shotgun formation with Richardson to the left and three receivers to the right. Luck quickly faked a throw right and then shoveled the ball to Richardson with his left hand. Richardson easily scored a touchdown.
2. As if losing offensive starters wide receiver Reggie Wayne, offensive lineman Donald Thomas and tight end Dwayne Allen for the season weren't bad enough, Indianapolis fought through six additional absences on Sunday. Cornerback Greg Toler, fullback Stanley Havili, linebacker Pat Angerer, center Samson Satele, right guard Jeff Linkenbach and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois sat out. Halfback Donald Brown (stinger) carried five times for 38 yards in the first quarter before sitting out the remainder of the game.
To make any noise in the playoffs, the Colts need dramatically improved health. But against a last-place opponent, Indy weathered the storm, and coach Chuck Pagano saw a common theme in how the Colts held up at each of the nine positions where a replacement was needed.
"It's a young guy taking advantage of his opportunity and preparing," Pagano said.