Colts’ control of division goes south with loss to Texans

Tight end Eric Ebron contemplates the Colts' loss at Houston.
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INDIANAPOLIS — One month ago, the Indianapolis Colts appeared to be in control of the AFC South.

They were 4-2, including 2-0 in the division, after beating Houston at home and were a popular underdog following the retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck. A win over Denver lifted the Colts to 5-2.

And then things went south. Following three losses in four games, the Colts are 6-5 and second to the Texans.

“We knew it was a big game, we knew what was at stake,” coach Frank Reich said after Thursday’s 20-17 loss at Houston. “We had chances at the end. We didn’t make enough plays in any of the phases to come away as a winner.”

Not making enough plays has become a recurring theme for Indy’s offense.

Clearly, the Colts were off when Brian Hoyer replaced Jacoby Brissett (left knee) as the starting quarterback in a home loss to Miami. Four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton was on a play count Thursday and dropped two key passes after missing the previous three games with a calf injury. Running back Marlon Mack went down with a broken right hand in Sunday’s victory over Jacksonville, had surgery Monday and could miss about a month.

While Brissett continues playing with a sprained medial collateral ligament and Jonathan Williams just posted a second straight 100-yard game, the Colts need Hilton to get healthy enough to stretch the field.

“We still have to find ways to make big plays, and if you are going to run the ball for 175 yards that has to be accompanied by four or five chunk plays in the passing game,” Reich said during a conference call Friday. “Collectively, as coaches and players, as an offense, we just didn’t get that done last night.”

Indy has a 10-day break to prepare for a crucial game against surging Tennessee, winner of three of four.

Indianapolis will be on the road for three of its last four, with trips to Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville along with a home game against Carolina.

“You come into a game, a divisional game for the top spot, come into a hostile environment, you want to come in and get a big win,” All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said. “We didn’t play our best ball. I’m very frustrated.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Defense. The Colts have been as stingy as any defense lately. In the last seven games, the Colts have allowed as many as 20 points in a game three times — twice by Houston and once by Pittsburgh — and they’ve allowed only two teams to rush for 100 yards.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Deep passing game. Brissett has been solid in the short and mid-range game. He’s also been effective keeping drives alive with his feet. And the Colts are running the ball well, too, even as defenses stack the line of scrimmage because of Indy’s inability to consistently hit the big pass plays. A healthy Hilton could change everything.

STOCK UP

RB Jonathan Williams. The four-year veteran came into this season with 94 yards in his career. Williams now has back-to-back 100-yard games and should continue to run hard behind a strong offensive line at least until Mack returns.

STOCK DOWN

Hilton. After returning from injury, he caught only one more pass (three) than he dropped (two). “I’ve got to make that, that’s what I get paid for. I’ve got to make it,” Hilton said of the third-down drop on Indy’s second-to-last series. “I let my team down today.”

INJURED

Reich said the Colts didn’t sustain major injuries Thursday. The extra time off could help Hilton get back to full speed and could help cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (ankle) and safety Khari Willis (concussion protocol) return next week.

KEY NUMBER

Two — the number of games Indianapolis has topped 17 points in its last five games. Indy is averaging 20.2 points during that span, nearly one-third of the total coming in a 33-13 win over Jacksonville.

NEXT STEPS

The long break gives Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni more time to devise a creative game plan with more downfield throws for Brissett.