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After shutout, Colts get wakeup call
They know their precarious position in the AFC standings and that the next challenge is arguably the most challenging on the road against the NFL's hottest team.
But the Indianapolis Colts (6-6) were trying to stick to the weekly narrative that Sunday's game against the AFC South Division-leading Houston Texans (9-3) at NRG Stadium is just like any other week.
Even if that's not true.
The Texans have won nine consecutive games, starting with a 37-34 overtime win at Indianapolis on Sept. 30. They mathematically eliminate the Colts from division title contention with a win.
More than that, a disappointing 6-0 loss at Jacksonville on Sunday has the Colts on the outside looking in at the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, one game behind Baltimore and tied with three other teams at 6-6.
Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard disagreed on Wednesday with the assertion that this next game will be like a playoff game. Granted, he's a rookie who hasn't experienced the NFL playoffs.
"I don't think so," he said. "We're approaching this as any other week."
But Colts veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who started six playoff games from 2012 to 2014, offered a differing perspective.
"They're all playoff games," Hilton said.
The Texans, much like the Jaguars, have one of the NFL's stingiest defenses led by four-time, first-team All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. They're third in scoring defense at just 19.6 points allowed.
The Colts had a five-game win streak snapped by the Jaguars' stout defense, which shut out quarterback Andrew Luck for the first time in his 82-game, regular-season career.
"We will have our hands full," Luck said of the Texans. "I know guys are excited to get back out on the practice field today. I know I certainly am, and figure out a way to get better as a team."
Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich tried to downplay the significance of this next game, which was his message to the team, but there's no way around the obvious that the importance of winning took on more significance after a shutout loss.
"We put ourselves not in must-win situations, we put ourselves in must-get-better situations," Reich said, a message he's repeated to players throughout the season. "That's been our mantra the whole year and that's not going to change. We are a process-oriented, people-oriented team. We focus on getting better every day. We know that's what works, that's what's stood the test of time. That's the best way to prepare for this week and that's all that matters."
Reich said he doesn't buy into the notion that the Colts' backs are against the wall.
"No, I don't personally believe in that," he said. "I understand it. It sounds sexy, it sounds 'ooh' and all that stuff, but what works is you got to get better. What we talk about it is you almost have to surrender to the outcome to focus on the process. A lot of times what happens when you get too focused on the outcome - there's a lot of empirical evidence in a lot of different ways that says the best way to do it is focus one day at a time to get better."
Aside from failing to score, Luck lamented how the Colts failed in manageable third-down situations. One of the league's best at third-down conversions, the Colts were five of 18 against the Jaguars, and also failed on three key fourth-and-1 plays.
"Obviously we struggled and struggled a lot, but you learn from every game," Luck said. "There is sort of the emotional part of a game and you go through that cycle - sort of directly (after) the game. But you wake up the next morning and you sort of put the emotions aside, the result aside and you look at the cycle of play.
"So whether it's win, lose, big, little you learn. You learn from each play. So certainly there were learning moments in that game and more from the sort of negative maybe than of the positive. But I think once you're watching it on film, it is like any other game."
SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Colts lead series, 25-8. The Texans won 37-34 in overtime on Sept. 30 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Colts prevailed 20-14 in their last visit to NRG Stadium on Nov. 15, 2017. The Colts are 11-5 in that stadium. The Texans have won four of the last six in the series, including twice in overtime.