Welcome back to the big time, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Their return to leaguewide relevance accelerated even further Saturday when they went to Houston and beat the Texans handily, 21-7, in a first-round AFC playoff game. The sixth-seeded Colts advanced to a conference semifinal next Saturday in Kansas City against the top-seeded Chiefs.
And the Chiefs had better beware. The Colts, winners of 10 of their last 11 games, are a dangerous opponent, even for a Chiefs team that features the likely league MVP in quarterback Patrick Mahomes and is set to play at home at raucous Arrowhead Stadium. That's how well the Colts are playing these days.
"It means we get another one next week," Luck told ESPN after Saturday's game. "And that's what excites me. It's fun ... I love going to play a game with these gentlemen on this field. I'm excited for another week."
Luck is back to being a true franchise quarterback, back to being the guy who arrived in Indianapolis as a worthy successor to Peyton Manning, seemingly destined for NFL greatness and Super Bowl victories. He was decent Saturday, throwing for two touchdowns. But he also threw an interception and had a relatively modest 222 passing yards.
But as much as Luck's return has led to the Colts' resurgence, Saturday's win put on display the fact that the team around him is a force in its own right. The Indianapolis offensive line kept Luck from being sacked even once and paved the way for tailback Marlon Mack to run for 148 yards and a touchdown. The defense shut out the Texans until a controversial fourth-quarter touchdown.
"Everybody played complementary football," Luck said. "Thankfully 21 (points) was enough, the way our defense played, the way our special teams played."
Gone are the days from early in Luck's career when he had to do things practically by himself, when his offensive line put him in nearly constant peril and the Colts' running game and defense were sorely lacking. After missing all of last season in his prolonged recovery from shoulder surgery, Luck has returned to a team that is far better equipped to help him succeed.
Credit for that goes to General Manager Chris Ballard, who bolstered the roster, notably through the team's first two picks of the 2018 draft: guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, who became the first rookie teammates to be named first-team all-pro since 1965. Ballard also held things together last offseason when New England's offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, tentatively accepted the Colts' head coaching job, then backed out of the deal following the Super Bowl to remain with the Patriots. Ballard calmly regrouped and hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
The Colts might want to send McDaniels a thank-you note right about now. Reich has been the right coach at the right time for this Colts team. He remained calm during a 1-5 start. He established an aggressive identity with the failed fourth-down gamble in overtime that led to a regular season loss to the Texans.
Luck, after throwing 39 touchdown passes during the regular season, had first-half touchdown throws Saturday to tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Dontrelle Inman as the Colts raced to a 21-0 lead. Mack added a touchdown run.
The Colts seemed to dial things down on offense in the second half, with the Texans unable to get much going. Houston finally scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on a catch by wide receiver Keke Coutee, but even that was questionable. Coutee reached toward the goal line with the football at the end of the play, and seemed to lose control of the ball just before it reached the end zone. The ball rolled through the end zone and out of bounds and probably should have been, by rule, a turnover and a touchback for the Colts.
"That's a touchback," Dean Blandino, the NFL's former vice president of officiating and now a rules analyst for Fox, wrote on Twitter.
But Blandino's successor, current NFL officiating czar Al Riveron, didn't agree, as the on-field call of a touchdown was upheld on the ensuing instant replay review. Another NFL officiating controversy might have been in the works if the Texans had been able to mount a comeback. But it simply was not to be, as the Houston offense could do nothing else.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, in his NFL playoff debut for the Texans, was a bit off all day, throwing an interception in a 29-for-49, 235-yard passing performance. Watson was sacked three times by the Colts and was forced to run with regularity, rushing for 76 yards. Houston's standout wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was limited to five catches for 37 yards. Tailback Lamar Miller managed only 18 rushing yards.
"We just weren't able to get it done," Texans Coach Bill O'Brien said at his postgame news conference. "It was a collective effort."
Early in Luck's career, the Colts were advancing gradually toward being the team they envisioned when Luck was chosen with the top overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft. They reached the playoffs in each of Luck's first three NFL seasons, advancing a round further each time. That culminated with a lopsided defeat at New England, in the game that spawned the Deflategate saga, in the AFC championship game to close the Colts' 2014 season.
That was followed by three downward-spiraling seasons, two .500 years and then last season's 4-12 calamity without Luck. Owner Jim Irsay first stuck with Ryan Grigson as his GM and Chuck Pagano as his coach, then eventually got rid of both. Enter Ballard, Reich and the upgraded roster. Re-enter Luck. And now the Colts are an honest-to-goodness contender again, set to challenge the Chiefs.
"It'll be fun," Luck said. "It'll be great. It's a great team. We've seen (the Chiefs) a lot on TV this year. They'll be fun to prepare for, and we'll see what we can do."