KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Justin Houston arrived hours before he was required to Sunday night.
While the Indianapolis Colts trainers set up the sideline for a prime-time showdown against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, Houston toured his NFL home for the first eight years of his career alone with his thoughts.
“It just brought back memories really,” Houston said later in the postgame locker room. “No emotions, just memories. As I walked the field, I was just thinking about plays I made while I was here. That was the most important thing.”
With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the veteran defensive end made an indelible memory in his new home.
Houston ran down Kansas City running back Damien Williams from the backside on fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 34-yard line and dropped him for a loss.
The Colts took over with 5:06 remaining, and after a six-play drive that drained all three of the home team’s timeouts, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 29-yard field goal that clinched a 19-13 victory to shock the pro football world.
Well, at least outside of the 53 men inside Indianapolis’ locker room.
“We were hungry,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “We were hungry all week. I know that is not uncommon, but there was something different about this week. I think we all felt it. I could feel it. It was palpable.
“We just walked in here with a lot of confidence. Last night, in our meetings, I cannot even explain what happened in our meetings last night. The feeling amongst the team when we walked into this stadium, when we were out in pregame, there was just an air of confidence and belief that we would do what we did today.”
What Indianapolis (3-2) did had never been done before in the two seasons Patrick Mahomes has been the Chiefs’ quarterback.
Prior to Sunday night, a Mahomes-led Kansas City offense had never scored fewer than 26 points. Only the Los Angeles Chargers, in a win at Arrowhead Stadium last December, had ever scored less than 30 points and beaten the Chiefs.
That all changed after the first minute of the second quarter Sunday.
Mahomes completed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Byron Pringle that was a classic example of his Michael Jordan-like impact on the game. Flushed from the pocket, the quarterback rolled out to his right.
He dodged a couple of defenders and then, while still on the run, threw the ball back across his body into the end zone. By that time, Pringle had shaken free, and he made an easy touchdown catch.
The score put Kansas City (4-1) ahead 10-7 with 14:08 remaining in the first half, and it was the kind of play that can defeat a defense’s spirit.
The Colts were galvanized.
“That was a great throw,” linebacker Anthony Walker said, noting some players on the sideline were frustrated after the play. “Not many quarterbacks in this league can make that throw, and I knew that if he had to make that throw all night tonight, we’d be fine. And I knew our DBs would respond. We were able to make some plays tonight.”
That’s an understatement.
The Chiefs scored just three points the rest of the way – on a 36-yard Harrison Butker field goal with 1:16 remaining. Four of Kansas City’s next six possessions, not counting a kneel down just before halftime, ended with a punt.
The other two? A fumble caused by safety George Odum’s punchout and Houston’s fourth-down stop.
Mahomes finished 22-of-39 for 321 yards, but he was sacked four times – one more than his season total entering this week.
This from a defense playing without three starters – all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard (concussion) and safeties Malik Hooker (knee) and Clayton Geathers (concussion). At one point in the first half, three defensive backs were on the sideline with injuries and coordinator Matt Eberflus was preparing to alter the game plan on the fly.
But Indianapolis got huge plays from unlikely sources like Odum and cornerback Shakial Taylor (who was re-signed this week after being injured late in the preseason).
“When I say every guy contributed – Shak comes back this week and is thrown in the fire and makes some plays,” Walker said. “I think guys prepare hard, guys know what to expect out there. Coaches give us a great plan, and we just gotta go out there and execute. I think we played pretty well today.”
The offense did just enough to make all that hard work on defense pay off.
Marlon Mack rushed for 132 yards on 29 carries after being a game-time decision with an injured ankle, and beleaguered kicker Adam Vinatieri was perfect on four field-goal attempts.
Indianapolis’ lone touchdown – a 1-yard run by quarterback Jacoby Brissett – came on its opening drive and put the visitors in front 7-3. After that there were field goals from 32, 32, 31 and 29 yards by Vinatieri to win the day.
His first 32-yarder tied the game at 10 with 11:12 remaining in the first half. The second gave the Colts the lead with 10 seconds left before halftime.
A 31-yarder with 7:40 remaining in the final period made it 16-10, and Houston’s big stop set up the clincher.
“When we play a team like these guys, points are a premium,” Vinatieri said. “Sometimes, I’m sure we would have liked to have gotten in the end zone a couple more times rather than just (get) field goals. But we needed every point that we got. I’m happy that they all went through.”
The Colts held the ball for an astonishing 37:15, nearly a full quarter longer than Kansas City, and ran 74 plays to their hosts’ 57.
It was a prudently aggressive attack that included two fourth-down conversions and 45 rushing attempts that netted 180 yards.
“It helps that you are playing a little keep away,” Reich said. “That was not the mentality. The mentality was we are going to do whatever it takes, but it sure helps when you can run the ball like that.”
And when your defense comes to play like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on the last time Indianapolis had a defensive performance so complete. It likely was more than a decade ago.
Perhaps one of the victories during the playoff run after the 2006 regular season that resulted in a Super Bowl title?
No matter the answer, Houston believes there are more days like this one to come.
He played the hero Sunday after reading the Chiefs’ fourth-down formation and diagnosing the power run to the other side. The offensive tackle set up for a hinge block, but when he turned back to engage Houston, the defensive end already was in the backfield.
Houston helped convince the younger players they could win this game with a rare display of vocal leadership during the practice week. Then he made the final big play to make sure it happened.
And, coincidentally, to beat the team that released him in March.
“We’re not surprised,” Houston said. “We knew what we had. The world probably was shocked by what we did, but we, by far, wasn’t shocked. We know what we can do.”