NFL Doubleheader Drama: Playoffs-bound Texans hold off Colts, Steelers top Baltimore

Jan 6, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers  quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) completes a first quarter pass to wide receiver Deontae Johnson (18) against the Baltimore Ravens. The two would team up for a game-winning 71-yard strike in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's much-needed road win. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) completes a first quarter pass to wide receiver Deontae Johnson (18) against the Baltimore Ravens. The two would team up for a game-winning 71-yard strike in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's much-needed road win. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The lowering of the curtain on the NFL's 2023 season started off with a Saturday doubleheader fraught with must-win tension. The Steelers came through in the rain at M&T Bank Stadium to topple Baltimore but did so at a likely unbearable cost. 

The Colts and Texans engaged in a win-or-go-home showdown in Indy and featured a finish that will not soon be forgotten.

Let us take a closer look at these two matchups, the outcomes of which greatly impact some of Sunday's key games.

Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 10

In what is their biggest win of the 2023 regular season, the Steelers may have suffered their biggest loss of 2024.


Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph threaded a third-down slant pass to Diontae Johnson for a 71-yard catch and run on the first play of the fourth quarter, which broke a 7-7 tie and catapulted the Steelers to a must-have 17-10 win over the Ravens. The victory, which keeps Pittsburgh alive for a wild card berth, may qualify as a pyrrhic one: Star defensive end T.J. Watt left the game in the third quarter with what was initially diagnosed as a Grade 3 MCL sprain. 


This particular injury, if confirmed by an MRI scheduled Sunday, might require surgery and, if it doesn't, usually requires several weeks to heal. Meaning that Pittsburgh will be absent its best player should they make it into the postseason. The Steelers are awarded a wild card spot if either Jacksonville (at Tennessee) or Buffalo (at Miami) lose Sunday.


The 71-yard TD pass to Johnson accounted for more than half of Rudolph’s passing yards. While the Ravens D and the pelting rain shut down the passing game, RB Najee Harris kept the Pittsburgh offense’s head above water, going with 112 yards on 26 carries. His one rushing TD, a six-yard rush on Pittsburgh’s second possession of the game, broke the seal on the scoring. A key play on that 76-yard scoring drive was a 23-yard burst by Harris’ backfield mate, Jaylen Warren.


Early in the game, the Baltimore offense, Lamar-less as it was, either went three-and-out or turned the ball over. Finally, QB Tyler Huntley and Co. found a groove and drove 71 yards on six plays for a touchdown. A 29-yard run by Gus Edwards set up a Huntley scoring pass to tight end Isaiah Likely, who emerged as a threat in the Ravens passing game since the season-ending injury to Mark Andrews. On his touchdown catch, Likely stiff-armed his way through a Pittsburgh defender to the game-tying score.


And deadlocked it stayed until Rudolph and Johnson hooked up on the game’s most stunning play. The two teams exchanged punts, then Edwards fumbled in Baltimore territory, setting up a Chris Boswell 25-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 10-point lead.


The Ravens put together a scoring drive on their next and final possession, driving 57 yards on 12 plays, with Justin Tucker kicking a field goal with 16 seconds left to make it a one-possession game. Pittsburgh recovered Tucker’s ensuing onside kick to preserve the victory.


For Baltimore, even though it lost at home, the main objective was achieved — rest key players and avoid injuries to key players. Pittsburgh, in a need of a win, did not have the luxury of exercising such precaution.


The injury to Watt occurred in the third quarter, when the star DE collided with teammate Montravius Adams after jumping to bat down a Huntley pass. Prior to the mishap, Watt did everything in his power to put the game in the win column. He collected two sacks and was credited with six tackles. His two sacks gave him 19 for the season, making him only the second NFL player to ever record 19 or more sacks in two separate seasons — the other player being older brother J.J. Watt.


The Steelers wait for two outcomes Sunday: Watt’s MRI results* and the results of the Jaguars' and Bills' games. They may be of equal importance, in that Pittsburgh's chances of advancing in the playoffs, were they to make it, take a huge hit with Watt sidelined.


*Injury update: The MRI results on Sunday showed a Grade 2 MCL sprain on Watt's left knee — a better diagnosis than initially provided. If the Steelers do make the playoffs, his availability will be uncertain, likely doubtful.



Houston 23, Indianpolis 17


A Saturday night special at Lucas Oil Stadium saw brilliant individual play overshadowed by a dropped fourth-down pass, as the Texans hung on to beat the Colts and clinch their first playoff spot since 2019. 


For the Colts, the difficult loss knocks them out of the playoff picture.


Memorable clutch performances satisfied the need for them. Houston’s C.J. Stroud capped off his brilliant rookie campaign, going 20-of-26 for 264 yards and two scores. His favorite target, Nico Collins, caught nine passes for 195 yards, which was just enough to offset Jonathan Taylor and his 188 yards rushing for the Colts.


The game, tightly contested throughout, reached its dramatic apex in the fourth. With the game tied at 17-17, Houston RB Devin Singletary punched in the go-ahead touchdown with over six minutes remaining. However, Texans placekicker Ka'imi Fairbairn blew the extra point attempt in what seemed for the next several minutes to be a critical miss.


On the ensuing drive, QB Gardner Minshew and running back Taylor led the Colts’ offense towards a potential game-winning touchdown. Minshew connected with rookie Josh Downs on a 30-yard pass play to move the ball into Houston territory. An illegal-use-of-hands call on the Texans brought the Colts to the Houston 34-yard line. 


Then Taylor, a workhorse all evening, ran the ball six consecutive times, picking up one first down and setting up a 4th-and-1 from the Houston 15. That Taylor did not get a seventh straight carry will have Indianapolis fans asking “what if…?” all offseason.


In truth, the play call on 4th-and-1 with 1:06 left gave the the Colts exactly what they wanted: backup RB Tyler Goodson out in the flat with a blocker in front. But Goodson, who had not touched the ball all evening, couldn’t hang on to Minshew’s pass, thrown behind Goodson but catchable. The Texans took over on downs and ran the clock down to just a few seconds. On fourth down, Houston punter Cameron Johnston ran out the back of the end zone for a safety, making the final score 23-19.


Tonight and the next few days will be brutal for Goodson, but the Colts lost this game in other ways too. Most notably, the team was a dreadful 1-of-11 on third downs. Minshew passed for just 133 yards as the Colts offense seemed intent on pounding the rock. That part of the game plan was successful; the Colts ran for 227 yards. But Minshew was not able to parlay that running success into chunk passing plays.


Not that Houston was perfect. The Texans committed 11 penalties. However, Stroud and the offense did not turn the ball over, and, when needed, got enormous plays from Collins.


Coming into the game with 71 catches and 1,107 yards in 12 games, Collins clearly announced himself in 2023 as a star at the wide receiver position. Tonight, the wideout’s exploits were an entire constellation. 


Trailing 3-0, following a Colts opening scoring drive, Collins hauled in a 75-yard touchdown pass from Stroud. He broke off a 29-yard catch and run to set up Houston’s second touchdown. And his 23-yard reception down the seam set up Singletary’s game-winning TD run. 


Let us not overlook Stroud's game. In his first test in a playoff-type atmosphere, Stroud was efficient and dynamic, no more so than on the first-quarter bomb to Collins, when the rookie stepped up in the pocket and delivered a pearl just before being slammed by Indy DT Deforest Buckner. On that play, Stroud showcased a pocket presence, accuracy, and poise under pressure that the much-ballyhooed S2 cognition tests apparently do not account for.


Taylor’s performance was equally epic. His most striking moment came on Indy’s opening possession of the second half. With his team trailing 14-6, the talented running back ripped off a 49-yard touchdown run that, with the successful two-point conversion, tied the game at 14. Had the Colts scored a touchdown on their final drive, his yeomanlike effort in leading his team to a win would have been rightfully hailed.


The Texans are in the postseason — at least as a wild card. Houston can win the AFC South if Jacksonville falls to the Titans in Nashville on Sunday. For the Colts, their 9-8 record and place at the threshold of the playoffs exceeded preseason expectations. With QB Anthony Richardson back in the mix next year, Indianapolis should challenge Houston and Jacksonville for the division title. 

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