Their playoff pulse fading and up against the NFL's hottest team, the Indianapolis Colts endured one offensively inept quarter before awakening from their slumber on Sunday.
That's when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck got hot. That's when wide receiver T.Y. Hilton reminded everyone that he owns the Houston Texans.
And that's why, coupled with a defense that came up with five sacks and nine tackles for loss, the Texans' nine-game winning streak ended and the desperate Colts sustained postseason aspirations with a 24-21 road triumph at NRG Stadium.
"We're the ones who started their win streak," Hilton said of a 37-34 overtime home loss in September, "so it was only right that we ended it."
The underdog Colts (7-6) pulled even with Baltimore, Tennessee and Miami in pursuit of the sixth and final AFC playoff berth. The Texans (9-4) will have to wait at least one more week to clinch the AFC South Division title and an automatic postseason spot.
"Every loss is extremely painful, I mean, any loss in my entire life has been painful," said Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. "This one is the exact same. I mean, it sucks."
The outcome was a stunning reversal from how this game began, when a sputtering Colts offense that had been shut out 6-0 at Jacksonville last week seemed to be suffering from a hangover. Four three-and-out possessions and not a single first down for one quarter, then Luck was intercepted on a catchable pass tipped by wide receiver Zach Pascal at the outset of the second quarter.
After that, the Colts went up tempo with the no huddle and Luck drove his team to three consecutive scoring drives against the NFL's No. 3 scoring defense for a 17-7 halftime lead. When the Texans pulled to within a field goal at 17-14 in the third quarter, Luck hit Hilton on a 60-yard bomb to set up Marlon Mack's 4-yard TD run and a 24-14 edge.
"Let me just tell you: As an offensive coach, when you throw up a goose egg, it's a long week and there's a lot of pressure on you the next week," Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich said. "And when you start off the way we started off, it was not what we were hoping for. But guys believed."
Three of Hilton's top-five games in receiving yards have come against Houston, including his regular-season best of 223 yards in 2014. The four-time Pro Bowl star finished with nine catches for 199 yards. He had entered with 67 catches for 1,246 yards and nine TDs in 13 career games against the Texans. Hilton set a franchise record with his 11th career game of at least 150 receiving yards. Three have come against Houston.
"T.Y. likes the biggest stage," said Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo. "The bigger the stage, the more excited T.Y. gets to play."
Hilton had missed two days of practice with a shoulder injury and was hobbled with a foot issue after his 60-yard reception. But he finished.
"Like everybody says, this is my second home," Hilton said.
Luck, who passed for a career-high 464 yards in the September loss to the Texans, completed 27 of 41 attempts for 399 yards with two TDs and the lone interception.
"I'm having a blast," Luck said. "It's a great group of guys to be around."
His first scoring pass was to tight end Eric Ebron, whose 12th TD reception of the season set a franchise record for a Colts tight end. He had shared the mark with Dallas Clark (2007). The second scoring pass was to Pascal. Both pass catchers atoned for previous drops.
The Colts offensive line allowed two sacks, one to All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt, but consistently provided enough protection to give Luck time to make plays. Two of the Colts' initial drives stalled after third-down drops.
Aside from the Colts offense, it was up to a young, speedy defense to keep Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins contained. The two did hook up for a fourth-quarter, 7-yard TD pass to close the gap to the final margin, but the Colts defense did just enough.
"We know what kind of team we have," said Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. "We know what kind of talent we have in the room. We don't blink on defense."
Leonard, who entered with a league-best 123 total tackles, padded his numbers with 12 tackles and his seventh sack of the year.
Defensive tackle Denico Autry, who had a career-high three sacks last week, delivered two more as Watson was hounded throughout. The Texans passer completed 27 of 38 passes for 267 yards and one TD. Watson finished with just four catches for 36 yards.
"Defense did a great job of not letting the game get away really," Luck said. "I think something about our defense, they were just making plays all day long and keeping us in there."
That Watson was also the team's leading rusher with 35 yards on five carries was telling as the Colts limited running backs Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue to just 54 yards rushing on 20 carries. Both had a short-yardage scoring run, but the Texans were unable to sustain drives by running. The Colts achieved their objective of making the Texans one-dimensional and putting the onus on Watson's passing.
"Man, they play hard," Watson said of the Colts defense. "(They) did what the game plan was for themselves. They capitalized on more opportunities than we did."
The Texans didn't get the ball back after Hopkins' TD with 2:37 remaining as the Colts aggressively passed on first down to move the chains. The home team's timeouts all used, Luck enticed Jadeveon Clowney to jump offside on a third-and-one play with 2 minutes remaining.
"I was very close to calling a timeout," Luck said, "but I said, 'I'll give it another go.'"
Game over. A shamed Clowney departed from the stadium without talking to the media.
"He jumped offsides," Watt said. "I think we all saw the same thing."
The Texans can clinch the division title with a Saturday road win against the New York Jets if the Colts and Titans both lose.
"Look, I don't like what happened today, but I'm fine with where we are," said Texans head coach Bill O'Brien. "This is the NFL. We did not do a good enough job today. The Colts did a much better job than us. There's a lot of football left."
The Colts return home to Lucas Oil Stadium to host the surging Dallas Cowboys (8-5), who have won five in a row after an overtime victory over the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday.
While the Colts will be reminded that they haven't assured themselves of anything yet, this was a must win to have any realistic shot at the postseason. And Reich, who had said during the week that his team would need to "play its best game," was convinced his players would prevail.
"There was a feeling of confidence all week, there was a feeling of confidence on our trip here, in the meetings last night," Reich said. "I think what was best about this is we expected to win this game. We really did."