INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck is always supposed to be in control. He's one of those NFL Masters of the Universe, supreme in his self confidence.
But Houston Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel knows a little something about messing with the best quarterback minds. There is a way to use confidence against a quarterback who is always sure his arm is right. And the underdog Texans — bidding to finally win a game in Naptown — pulled it off for most of a 17-10 loss to Luck’s Indianapolis Colts.
The Texans do not lose because Andrew Luck dominated them like he has in a few prior games. Not even close. Luck never came close to solving Crennel's defense on this Sunday afternoon.
“Our defense played a great game against a great offense,” Texans left tackle Duane Brown says.
Luck barely completes more than 50 percent of his passes (18 for 34), throws for a mere 187 yards and struggles to a 76.5 quarterback rating. He's not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady despite all the premature MVP magazine covers.
On this day, Luck mostly has . . . well, luck on his side.
The Texans do not lose because Luck dominated them like he has in prior games. Not even close. Luck never came close to solving this defense.
He benefits from the Texans losing starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a fractured leg early in the second quarter and Houston coach Bill O'Brien's severely limited play calling from that point on. Luck gets the win despite throwing a touchdown to the Texans and floundering away chance after chance to stick a dagger into a wounded opponent.
Luck will get a pass on this one because the Colts end up clinching the AFC South anyway. And because the Anointed One always gets a pass from the media on any struggle of game.
But make no mistake, the Texans defense gave Luck plenty to think about in a division rivalry that only figures to get more physical in the years to come.
"It wasn't pretty," Luck admits.
The Texans, now 7-7, are out of the playoffs. But realistically, this season was never really about a legitimate run at the playoffs. It's about establishing the identity of a Bill O'Brien team.
The Texans defensive identity against Andrew Luck and these 10-4 playoff-bound Colts is now clear. It's physical, pounding and annoying.
"They played their tails off," O'Brien says of Crennel's defense. "They just kept fighting."
And kept limiting Luck. The Colts fail to crack 300 yards and actually manage to finish with less total yards than the crippled Texans (278 to 289). Heck, even usual Texans killer T.Y. Hilton is held to 50 yards. He only had 223 yards the last time these two teams met back in October.
"It's just about starting fast," Texans safety Kendrick Lewis says. "We wanted to put our feet in the water and just go hunt."
Luck lurches out to a 3-for-10 passing start. More damaging, on a critical third-and-seven, he sees a look that isn't really there. Forcing a pass into Crennel's deceiving coverage scheme on third-and-seven, confidently going for it as usual, Luck sees disaster strike. Lewis jumps the route, picks off the pass and sprints into the end zone for a 27-yard Pick 6.
Lewis notes the coverage was "disguised quarters" and Luck, for all his reputed uncanny gifts, never picks up on it.
Suddenly, Houston leads 7-0. Suddenly, there's real hope of an upset.
Luck steadies himself on the Colts next drive, going 6-for-6 as Indy marches 78 yards for a touchdown in seven plays. But that quick burst of Luck brilliance turns out to be the outlier on this day. The super hyped Luck can never dominate Crennel's defense.
With J.J. Watt racking up his third straight multiple sack game, with Jared Crick getting in Luck's face himself, with Hilton held in check, the game's a complete offensive slog for Indianapolis. This is a team that averages more than 30 points per game, a team with the No. 1 rated offense in the NFL.
That team finishes with 17 points.
"There are no moral victories in the NFL," Watt says.
No, but there are games that set the stage for the future. See you next year? Andrew Luck will hardly be looking forward to follow up reunions with this Texans defense.
Sure, Luck now has three playoff berths in his first three years in the league — and a 5-1 record vs. the Texans. It's easy to say any idea that the gap is closing is crazy. But Luck is not poised to go on a Peyton Manning-like dominant record run against Houston. This game shows he is just getting by.
The Colts know the Texans are coming.
"We know the importance, how important it was for them," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano says after his game gets by. "They're trying to get in the playoffs. They're trying to win the division.
"They're trying to take what we have."
That's anything but a farfetched possibility now.