On the night after Halloween, Schaub and the Texans were stuck in a cacophonous, cavernous house of horrors.
A Peyton Manning(notes) touchdown pass had staked the Colts to an early lead, and now Indy's bookend speed rushers, Dwight Freeney(notes) and Robert Mathis(notes), were flashing into the pocket with abandon, intent on making the quarterback's stress level unmanageable.
Schaub sensed this – you could see it in the way his eyes darted around the field, and it was also apparent in the jittery movement of his feet. He was a mistake waiting to happen, and sure enough, early in the second quarter, blitzing linebacker Clint Session(notes) came charging toward Schaub, who rushed a throw to wideout Kevin Walter(notes). Indy cornerback Kelvin Hayden(notes) jumped the route, caught the ball in stride and took it 25 yards to the house, and for many viewers it was time to reach for the remote and watch the San Francisco Giants close out a World Series triumph over the Texas Rangers.
Yes, it was a Mess With Texas kind of night all the way around.
Those who stuck with football saw the scenario Schaub and his teammates dreaded play out in hi-def/surround-sound clarity. The stadium got louder. Manning grew more emboldened, repeatedly taking shots downfield, despite at times playing with a ragtag crew of replacement receivers. Freeney and Mathis seemed to get even quicker off the edge, and Schaub became even more ragged, finishing the first half with five completions in 15 attempts for just 37 yards.
The Colts (5-2) cruised to a 30-17 victory to take over first place in the competitive AFC South, while the Texans (4-3) flew home feeling like a bunch of pedestrians who'd just wandered onto the Brickyard during the Indy 500.
Coming into the game, the Texans had reason for optimism. They'd opened the season with a 34-24 victory over the Colts in what turned out to be a breakout game for halfback Arian Foster(notes), adding another weapon to an already prolific, Schaub-led offensive attack. Indy, meanwhile, had suffered a barrage of injuries that included Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark's(notes) crushing, season-ending dislocated wrist. On Monday, Manning was also without valuable wideout Austin Collie(notes) and starting halfback Joseph Addai(notes).
Given the degree to which Manning relies on timing with his receivers, all of this seemed to carry the potential for the home team's discombobulation on offense. At one point during Monday's game, Indy lined up a formation that included oft-injured wideout Anthony Gonzalez(notes) (playing his third game in two years), rookie free agent receiver Blair White(notes) (aka The Blair White Project), tight end Jacob Tamme(notes) (first career start), rookie tight end Brody Eldridge(notes) (a fifth-round draft pick) and rookie free-agent running back Javarris James(notes) (best known for being ex-Colts star Edgerrin James'(notes) cousin).
And still, Manning made it happen. Though the Texans have a prolific offense, the Titans (5-3) seem to be a more complete team than Indy and the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4) have had their moments, the Colts again look like division favorites because of simple math: They are so good at home that a 7-1 record at Lucas Oil Stadium seems completely plausible. Given that a 10-6 record will likely be good enough to win the division, Indy, in all likelihood, needs only to steal a few victories on the road to secure a return trip to the playoffs and a chance to defend its AFC championship.
The Colts have already won at Denver and Washington, and have games at Philadelphia, New England, Tennessee and Oakland remaining. Meanwhile, they're 3-0 at home with the Bengals, Chargers, Cowboys, Jags and Titans still on the schedule.
By year's end, the standings will likely say that the Colts remain an elite team. Yet they're doing it with a roster that includes only three players who'd be considered elite by most NFL personnel people: Freeney, the best pure pass rusher in the game; veteran wideout Reggie Wayne(notes), who'll be seeing double coverage for the rest of the season given the team's injury issues at receiver; and Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and the man who makes it all possible. Realistically, he should count as three elite players all by himself.
The death of former Portland Trail Blazers power forward Maurice Lucas on Sunday evoked memories of the Blazers' 1976-77 NBA champions, and they aren't a bad comparison for the 2010 Colts. Those Blazers revolved around a transcendent player (center Bill Walton, in his only fully healthy campaign) who made everyone around him better and brought an uncanny intelligence to his craft. Other than him and Lucas, however, the team lacked overwhelming talent, featuring a starting lineup that included an accomplished shooting guard in Lionel Hollins (a complementary player, or the Mathis equivalent) and a pair of lightly regarded performers in small forward Bob Gross and point guard Dave Twardzik.
No Super Bowl loser over the past decade has made it past the divisional round of the playoffs the following season, and all but two have missed the postseason entirely. If anyone can break that trend, it's Manning, whose mentality is geared toward exploiting a tremendous home-field advantage and figuring out a way to gut out victories on the road.
It's a formula with which Schaub is all too familiar. He saw disaster coming early in Monday's game, and his foresight only made the situation worse. Unfortunately for the Texans' quarterback, switching over to the World Series was not an option.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
Late in the first half, the MNF broadcast crew started talking about the news of the day. When it came time for Gruden to weigh in on Randy Moss(notes), he said, "The guy's a great player. Something's missing. I'd like to know what it is." The serum-laced translation:
The guy's a great player. Something's missing. I'd like to know what it is. Wait, actually I know exactly what the [expletive] it is. Heart. A couple of other pretty important male body parts, if you get my drift. Maturity. The ability to communicate without sounding like a total jackass. Al Davis and I don't see eye-to-eye on much, but this is one thing we agree on completely. The guy is a dog. Good riddance.
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
Magical right arm
Think I mean The Sheriff's? No
This night was The Freak's
ONE E FOR FREE
Hello. First of all, I love your work. Please keep it up no matter what other people say to you. Now, on your "Embattled coaches, potential successors" column: On the possible replacements list I saw a lot of Jim Harbaugh. It is a pretty logical guess because Harbaugh has done well at Stanford, but am I the only one who felt that you mentioned his name frequently in order to somewhat "lure" Harbaugh away from Stanford, so your Cal Bears won't have to face a good Stanford team in the annual Cal-Stanford game? P.S. I still think Lamar Woodley's forced fumble on Kurt Warner(notes) was an incomplete pass. I just wanted to see a Hail Mary pass in the air in the closing seconds. I would have been satisfied if the officials called time out, checked the replays, and then ruled it a fumble. They never even checked; they cost us an entertaining chance to see a possible 21st century Flutie Magic. (Flutie is the reason I rooted for SD for a while. No more. I won't tolerate that GM with a ring and LT without it.)
Because I obviously bleed blue and gold, I won't feel any pain when Harbaugh leaves Stanford for bigger and better things – and if the powers that be on The Farm want to rehire Buddy Teevens or Walt Harris(notes), I certainly won't object. But you have to realize a few things: 1. Harbaugh and I go way back – I especially enjoyed covering him during the Captain Comeback Colts days – and believe it or not I've been known to send him congratulatory texts after Cardinal victories; 2. Because of his NFL ties, stint as a Raiders assistant and family's impressive coaching history, he was on the league's collective radar even when he was at the University of San Diego, and what he has done at Stanford has only reinforced that perception; 3. While the 10th-ranked Cardinal will undoubtedly be favored in this year's Big Game, as Harbaugh's team was last year, my daughter and I (and a bunch of my college friends) had a fantastic time at Stanford Stadium, where we booed Tiger Woods and beat our rival for the seventh time in eight years (and second time in three years vs. Harbaugh), and when it comes to surrendering possession of The Axe, we concede nothing. As for the play involving Woodley and Warner, I hear you. And I'd have been wholly satisfied if a potential Warner to Fitzgerald Hail Mary had been as thrilling as the one Harbaugh threw (and which landed only yards away from where I stood on the sideline) at Three Rivers Stadium 13 years earlier.