INDIANAPOLIS — Griff Whalen kept the media waiting Sunday while he endured a prolonged soak in the ice tub.
The second-year wide receiver was shaking off the rust that comes with three idle weeks in the NFL, and the extent of the damage he suffered against the Houston Texans will be made clear after an MRI later in the week. But Whalen’s impact on the Indianapolis Colts’ 25-3 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium was unmistakable.
He caught four passes for 45 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown just 5 minutes, 29 seconds into the first quarter that set the tone. It also ended a stretch of six consecutive games in which the Colts failed to reach the end zone in the first half.
Indianapolis (9-5) found the solution to its early offensive woes by opening in a no-huddle, spread attack. The result was two first-half touchdown passes for Andrew Luck and a rare 20-3 halftime lead. The defense and special teams took over in the second half to ice the victory.
“We needed it,” Luck said of the early success. “Better than the starts we’ve been having. Then a good team effort to hold on.”
In truth, the defense was the star of the day.
For the first time since Sept. 29 in Jacksonville, the Colts did not allow a touchdown. They surrendered just 239 yards and 12 first downs overall, forcing Houston (2-12) to punt on eight of its 14 possessions. Another series ended when the Texans ran out of downs, and a 10th gained 11 yards on three plays before the game clock expired.
Three others led to Indianapolis points. Cornerback Darius Butler intercepted two passes that set up Adam Vinatieri field goals, and Robert Mathis sacked Houston quarterback Case Keenum in the end zone, forcing a fumble the Texans recovered for a safety.
That play gave Mathis an NFL-high 16.5 sacks for the season and 108 for his career, eclipsing Dwight Freeney’s franchise records in each category.
“I enjoyed it to the utmost,” said Mathis, who celebrated with rolling flips in the end zone. “Never take it for granted because it is such an accomplishment. It’s just still unbelievable. Just happy to have it.”
The special teams chipped in with three Vinatieri field goals, including one set up by a 51-yard punt return by Whalen.
But the offense provided the fireworks early.
Indianapolis drove 80 yards on its opening drive, converting on all three third-down chances before Luck found Whalen down the seam in the end zone. Luck added a nine-yard touchdown to Trent Richardson on a shovel pass midway through the second quarter, but he wasn’t taking much credit for it.
“I don’t know if I deserve a touchdown pass,” said the quarterback, who finished 19-of-32 for 180 yards with the two scores and an interception. “It’s more a touchdown run, but I’ll take it. Great job by Trent finding the end zone and the O-line making it work.”
The Colts started their sixth different combination of the season on the offensive line and lost right guard Joe Reitz early on. Mike McGlynn moved over to center in place of injured Samson Satele, and rookie left guard Hugh Thornton returned after a one-week absence.
Reitz left in the first quarter to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return. He was replaced by undrafted rookie Xavier Nixon, who had been working as a swing tackle and never took a snap as a guard at the University of Florida.
The reshuffled line surrendered just one sack and paved the way for 152 rushing yards. Richardson accounted for a season-high 64 yards on 19 carries and added 38 yards on four receptions.
Richardson was a replacement himself after starter Donald Brown left early with a stinger.
“Our offensive line did a tremendous job today,” Richardson said. “The wide receivers did a really good job today and tight ends. As a group, as an offensive unit, we did a really good job today.”
It wasn’t all rosy.
Luck’s interception killed a promising second drive at the Texans’ 27-yard line, and the three field goal drives gained a total of 23 yards. The second half wasn’t pretty, with Indianapolis punting on its final three possessions and five of its last six overall. The lone exception was a fake punt that failed.
“Left some points out there, as you guys know,” head coach Chuck Pagano said. “And moving down, looking forward, moving forward in the playoffs and whatnot, next week and the week after, you got to score touchdowns. We can’t settle for field goals. We know that. We’ll keep grinding away.”
New England’s loss at Miami on Sunday left the door open for Indianapolis to improve its playoff seeding because it would win a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Patriots (10-4).
And the Colts remain mathematically alive for the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The most likely scenario, however, remains the fourth seed and a home date in the first round against Kansas City (11-3) — the team Indianapolis visits next week.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Colts’ goal remains to find a spark to fuel a postseason run.
“You never want to back into the playoffs,” Butler said. “Obviously we clinched our playoff spot, but you don’t want to back into it. We had three of our last four games at home. Our first game will be at home in the playoffs. We want to go in there hot, take your home field first. At some point, we’re going to have to go on the road to get where we want to go. So we’ve got to get hot now.”