Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
HOUSTON -- The Colts are still the Colts; the Texans are still the Texans.
The fourth-quarter clock showed 3:36 and Gary Brackett had just finished a graceful negotiation of the sideline for a 68-yard fumble return touchdown. The Texans were still ahead, still had a chance to wrap the game in a tourniquet and save it.
But deep down everyone in Reliant Stadium knew it had turned irreparably, and that while Houston was still ahead, the Texans were finished.
Texans right tackle Eric Winston stood around the 14-yard line not far from where Brackett scored, both hands on his helmet in a picture that spoke its own caption: "What did we just do?"
What they just did -- allow the Colts to come back from 17 points down with under five minutes left for a 31-27 win -- might have kept Indianapolis from divisional death on an afternoon when the Tennessee Titans moved to 5-0.
"I told the team in the locker room that this can be a season saver if we take this energy and passion and emotion that we played with in the last four minutes and play with that all 60 minutes," coach Tony Dungy said.
Give credit to Marlin Jackson for setting Sage Rosenfels in motion on a helicopter blade spin when the quarterback foolishly tried to hurdle him. Spinning through the air, Rosenfels was lined up for a second hit by Raheem Brock that jarred the ball loose for Brackett to scoop.
But if Rosenfels gave himself up with a slide, or took a left and headed to the sideline, the fuse never gets lit. The whole chain of events was born from Rosenfels' aggression -- a trait that served him well up to that point -- in a moment when he should have listened to whatever warning bells were ringing in his head.
It was third-and-8 from the Colts' 39 and a first down would have kept things moving. He saw a chance to earn a new set of downs, kill more clock, set up another score. Striving for all that, something inside him convinced him to try to leap Jackson.
"We played as good as we're going to play -- as we can play -- for 3 1/2 quarters, and I feel like I let all 53 guys and 15-whatever coaches down," Rosenfels said. "We played a great game. I just made some bad mistakes at the end."
Rosenfels received some sympathetic comments from his counterpart on the other sideline.
"I don't blame him,"' Peyton Manning said. "If he wouldn't have played the way he played, they wouldn't have even been in the game. He's trying to win the game for them, he's trying to make a play to win the game. I've been there, before, usually not running, usually throwing. But a lot of times you say, 'Hey, I'm going to win this game right here, and take [away] any risk of them having a chance to get the ball back.'
"You know, four out of five times he's probably going to make that play. Just the guy hit the ball in the right spot. As a quarterback you can't second-guess the way you play. He was aggressive all game, that's kind of why they were in that position and it just didn't work out on that play."
It got worse from there of course. Three plays later, Rosenfels was stripped from behind by Robert Mathis. That set up the inevitable go-ahead touchdown for the Colts.
And Houston still wasn't dead, not until Rosenfels completed the turnover hat trick with an interception that Melvin Bullitt might have been able to fair catch, a pick that officially ended the game. Houston coach Gary Kubiak said it looked so bad because Andre Johnson got tripped up.
The result was the largest comeback in the final five minutes to win in regulation in NFL history. (I know you're flipping through games in your head saying it can't be, but the parameters of the five minutes and no overtime are more restrictive than you think. And in the Elias Sport Bureau we trust.)
At 2-2 the Colts can still see the 5-0 Titans at the top of the division, and they still play Tennessee twice. At 0-4 the Texans will aim to match last season's 8-8; if this game doesn't break them, they could be 3-4 in three week after visits from Miami, Detroit and Cincinnati.
While the Colts did great work to pull out the win, the idea that they can find the sort of spark that coincided with the Texans' collapse on any sort of consistent basis seems less and less believable.
The 156 rushing yards Indy gave up were less than its average coming in. But if the teams the Colts are about to face get 4.9 yards a clip, it's going to be hard to make things work against Baltimore, Green Bay, Tennessee, New England and Pittsburgh -- their next five opponents.
Offensively, it took a fourth-down conversion on each of their first two drives for them to build a 10-0 lead. Those points hardly came as easily as they seemed to for the Colts we've seen in recent years. And this offense showed it's capable of not threatening the scoreboard for 2 1/2 quarters at a time.
The Colts are still very much out of sync, searching for answers I'm not certain they are going to find.
"We've got to break out of whatever lethargic state that we're in," Dungy said.
Comparing pass rushing studs:
Mario Williams had four tackles, three quarterback hits and two sacks. One of his sacks came on a third down and forced a punt. While Williams started on the right side he spent little time there, playing far more on the left. Indy left tackle Charlie Johnson said he saw Williams only four or five times the whole game.
The impact Freeney and Williams have is most apparent in the way the quarterbacks they were hunting relied so much on short drops and quick throws.
The biggest pass rush play belonged to neither Freeney nor Williams, but to Mathis.
Odds 'n ends:
The Texans were 46 percent on third down, a pretty good number, especially when compared against the Colts, who were just 3-for-12.
But I felt like the Texans left themselves in third-and-long too often. So I counted it up after. Eight times it was third-and-4 or longer, and they converted only one of those.
Winning time of possession against the Colts has been all the rage as a popular formula, and it's certainly a smart game plan to maximize your offense's time on the field, keeping Manning off the field in the process.
But winning the clock is only part of the battle. You have to win the clock and get a lot of points out of it, because the Colts can score so quickly as to make your time of possession victory irrelevant.
In the Colts' last two games, they have been dominated in time of possession in three different quarters, but that ball-control advantage has hardly impacted the scoreboard as you might imagine.
The Colts dominated time of possession 10:40 to 4:20 in the first quarter Sunday and grabbed a 10-0 lead with it. I also looked for spillover into the following quarter and found none that would offset these numbers.
The Texans did well to get Andre Johnson involved early. His second and third receptions came in a span of three plays late in the first quarter, when Rosenfels turned as if he was going to the right, then threw quickly to Johnson on the left not far off the line of scrimmage.
Johnson got seven yards with the first, nine with the second and had a personal best first half -- seven catches for 98 yards and a TD.
Houston cornerback Jacques Reeves stayed with Reggie Wayne up the left sideline and was in perfect position to make a play on fourth-and-1 from the Houston 45-yard line. Except he never looked for the ball. Even if he didn't turn his head, raised arms would have been too big an obstacle for Manning's perfectly thrown pass, which landed softly in Wayne's arms for a 36-yard gain, making Reeves' presence immaterial.
Reeves was also with Wayne on the game-winning touchdown, but that spinning one-handed catch on the left boundary of the end zone looked about impossible to defend.
A lot of people stayed home.
I stink at crowd estimating, but a press box colleague agreed it was not unreasonable to estimate a quarter of the red and blue seats throughout Reliant Stadium were empty. While the team sought to provide an afternoon distraction, plenty of people in the city and the region could still have far more important things to do that take in a football game.