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What we learned from Texans' win over Colts

*With the top spot in the AFC South on the line, the Houston Texans (7-4) came from behind to knock off the rival Indianapolis Colts (6-5), 20-17, at home to kick off Week 12. Here's what we learned from Houston's victory: *

  1. Houston's offense, which looked rudderless last week in Baltimore, was propelled on Thursday night by the deep ball. It's no coincidence that this coincided with the return of Will Fuller to the Texans' lineup after four weeks away. Recovered from a bum hamstring, Fuller led Houston in receiving with 140 yards, 95 of which came on two deep passes from Deshaun Watson in the third quarter. Neither of them, one on Marvell Tell, the other on Kenny Moore, led directly to Houston touchdowns; the Texans cashed in on the second reception with a Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal. But those plays proved to Houston that it could test and beat Indianapolis deep. So the Texans did so again, next sending DeAndre Hopkins (94 yards, 2 TDs) one-on-one down the left sideline against Pierre Desir for a 30-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. It would be the game-winning score, and the one most indicative of Houston's character, or what it hopes to be down the stretch. Three of Watson's four longest completions of his career (49.3, 49.5 and 59.4 yards of air distance) came in Thursday night's win, per Next Gen Stats. Houston, we have a liftoff.
  1. The absence of Marlon Mack (out with a fractured hand) and the return of T.Y. Hilton from a calf strain seemed to indicate ahead of Thursday's clash that Indianapolis would air it out, especially against a secondary lacking Bradley Roby and Justin Reid. But the Colts had other plans. Indy opted for a ground-and-pound approach, never swaying from its strategy to hammer fourth-year back Jonathan Williams into Houston's front seven. And it worked, for most of the night. Williams finished with his second straight (and second career) 100-yard game, carrying the ball a career-high 26 times, the second-most of any Colts RB this season. Nyheim Hines (51 yards) would spell Williams on occasion, bringing a needed burst to the Colts' ground attack. Indianapolis was 9-for-15 on third-down conversions, in part because their third-down attempts were of short distances, thanks to their effective early-down ground game. So reliant on the rush was Indianapolis that the Colts finished with 39 rushing attempts to just 25 passing attempts.

But in the second half, when the Colts were up against it and needed the big play that the Texans were enjoying, Jacoby Brissett and the passing game couldn't get it done. In his return, Hilton was on the field for just 25 of a possible 65 plays, ceding snaps to the likes of Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers. When he did come on the field, Hilton was not effective. The veteran WR caught three passes on six targets for 18 yards, but dropped two third-down conversion attempts in the second half. Unable to rely on his other pass-catchers, Brissett (129 yards) averaged just 5.16 yards per attempt and completed just one pass past 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. The QB's last-ditch scramble on fourth-and-7 late in the fourth quarter came up one yard short, and the Colts fell one game back of Houston in the AFC South.

  1. That said, Indy was an early whistle away from perhaps having another shot at tying or winning Thursday's game. On second down with 1:48 remaining, Watson sped on a designed run to his right for six yards before he was met by spy linebacker Darius Leonard. The Colts All-Pro forced Watson to lose control of the football before the Texans QB was taken to the ground and a scrum ensued. The officiating crew ruled quickly that Watson recovered the ball and the play did not go to a booth review, despite replay of the QB clearly fumbling the ball hitting the airwaves. The NFL's officiating Twitter account said this was because "there was no clear visual evidence of a recovery by the defense." However, Leonard told reporters after the game that Watson acknowledged he lost the ball and that the linebacker had it. Another prime-time game, another referee-related row.
  1. Thursday night marked Vernon Hargreaves' first game in Houston since being waived by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The fourth-year corner played 53 defensive snaps in his Texans debut, filling in for Roby alongside Johnathan Joseph and Gareon Conley. Hargreaves racked up five tackles -- though he admitted after the game he missed a few he should have made -- and a pass defensed. Cut by Tampa Bay for not hustling, Hargreaves appears to have made a fast impression on his coach and teammates. "Meaningful games, that's something I haven't been a part of that in a long time," he told the Houston Chronicle after the win. More play like that on Thursday night, and Hargreaves will be playing a vital role in meaningful games deep into January for the first time in his career.
  1. The Texans' victory over Indy on Thursday night was critical to their hopes of winning the AFC South or just making the postseason. Just a month earlier, Houston lost to the Colts in Indy and briefly surrendered the tiebreaker atop the division. With Thursday's victory, Houston no longer has to worry about its head-to-head against the Colts, only its divisional record (3-1) were the Texans to tie Indy (3-1) at the end of the season. At 7-4, Houston is also one game clear of the Colts, two wins clear of the Titans and three wins clear of the Jaguars in the South. After next week's game against the hated New England Patriots, Houston won't play another team currently with a winning record for the rest of the season. Indy meanwhile slinks out of the top four and out of the playoff picture, briefly, thanks to Thursday's result. The 6-5 Colts also face just one more team with a winning record (New Orleans on Monday night in Week 15) and two more division opponents. This division race is far from over, but the Texans currently have the Colts by a nose.
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