HOUSTON -- Inside a somber, subdued Texans' locker room Sunday night, emotions ran the gamut.
They ranged between disappointment, frustration and a bit of confusion following a squandered opportunity for a victory to more encouraging big-picture thoughts about improvement and plenty of football games ahead for an overhauled football team.
It was that kind of day for a rebuilding Texans team that tied the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts, 20-20, at NRG Stadium after a scoreless overtime and surrendering a 20-3 advantage by allowing 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, Texans coach Lovie Smith punted in overtime rather than risk a potential loss in the first game of the season because of a defense that appeared tired and an offense that ceased to be effective after a solid start.
“We're devastated," Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil said. "It feels like we took an L, but it's better than a loss. It was our fault. There's some things on film we've got to fix. We've got 24 hours to let it go. You've got to give respect to us. You've got to earn it."
Led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor, the Colts took control in the fourth quarter and didn't relinquish it until overtime when they squandered a prime chance to put the Texans away and complete their comeback. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship shanked a 42-yard field goal try wide right of the upright.
Despite that misfire, the Texans still were unable to put the Colts away.
"It's very bittersweet," defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo said. "We've been working really hard and we wanted to get a win and finish the game out. We didn't get it done, but a lot of bright spots.
"I feel like this game was very winnable, but finishing is the name of the game. There were some plays I want back. We've got to move on to next week. There's a lot of football left. We'll make a lot of corrections. We'll be a lot better next week."
On 4th and 3 at the Colts' 49-yard line, Texans coach Lovie Smith had seen enough. He made a critical decision. After watching running back Rex Burkhead get stuffed for a loss of two yards on 3rd-and-1 instead of giving rookie Dameon Pierce the football, Smith opted to have Cameron Johnston punt the football with the knowledge that the Texans were unlikely to get the football back with 20 seconds remaining.
"Obviously, we didn't lose the game, but it kind of feels that way," linebacker Christian Kirksey said.
It was a conservative choice, but Smith went for the tie. The game ended after two Ryan incompletions.
Smith saw what everyone else in the stadium witnessed: Ryan had taken command, completing 32 of 50 passes for one touchdown and one interception after a rough start. And Taylor was building momentum with a lot of downhill runs, gaining 161 yards on 31 carries with one touchdown after rushing for just 68 yards in the first half.
"There's a lot of football left in the season, it's kind of as simple as that," Smith said. "I feel like a tie was better than a potential loss. Defensively, we weren't really stopping them an awful lot at that point.
"At the time, it's not like we were playing our best defense. We were drained. We were gassed a little bit. .. I didn't coach my best ball at the end. We didn't finish the way we need to."
In the fourth quarter alone, Taylor, the NFL rushing champion a year ago with 1,811 yards and 18 touchdown runs, gained 70 yards on nine carries. He averaged 7.8 yards per run, pounding the Texans' defense.
"Maybe the most disappointing drive defensively was the last drive that they scored running the football, and we just didn't tackle well," Smith said. "They had to go a long distance for it, and that was our worst ball right there defensively was on that drive.”
It was more than that, though, to veteran defensive end Jerry Hughes. He intercepted Ryan in the first half to lead to the first of Howard's touchdown catches. The Colts finished with 517 yards of total offense and 33 first downs, but they only had 208 yards and 11 first downs in the first half.
“We've got to learn how to close games out," Hughes said. "We were up on those guys at the start of the second half. The fourth quarter, we've got to shut the door as a defense. When you've got someone on the run, when you've got your foot on their neck, you've got to be able to squeeze and just solidify the game. We didn't do it this evening. We've got to learn from this game so we can figure out ways to close games, because that's the only way you're going to win in the NFL is in that fourth quarter.”
“We started off strong. The crowd did a great job of just energizing us that first half. We've got to just stay with it, and in the second half do a better job. We've got to understand that their backs against the wall. They don't want to lose coming out of the half down 20-3, so we've got to understand that when you've got someone on the run, we've got to finish them off, and we didn't do that this evening.”
The Texans' offense hadn't scored since tight end O.J. Howard's 22-yard touchdown catch, his second score of the game, on a Davis Mills pass since 7:16 of the third quarter. The Texans would never score again after manufacturing a 20-3 lead.
"We didn't lose, but we didn't win," offensive tackle Tytus Howard said. "The ultimate goal is to win. We didn't get that job done. I don't think it's nothing they did. I think it's all us. On offense, we didn't play good football in the second half and didn't play complementary football for our defense. We had a turnover. We had a couple of sacks off bad communication. We didn't finish.
"We got complacent. We didn't finish as an offense and we didn't come out with the W. I really feel like we've got a pretty good football team and I think we can win a lot of games if we play to our potential and execute and be consistent. I'm happy to know we've got a team that can compete this year and play some good football."
Mills had his moments, completing 23 of 37 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a respectable 98.9 passer rating, but he was also sacked three times.
Overall, it wasn't the outcome the Texans had hoped for.
“It's a long season ahead of us," Mills said. "A tie is always better than a loss when it comes down to it. It could change some things at the end of the season in the division, so that'll be big. But I think after this our guys have got a bad feeling, and we're ready to go out and change the result next time.
“I’m definitely disappointed. We knew we could win. We put ourselves in a good spot. Taking responsibility on offense, I think we could have played better later in the game and capitalized on some of our opportunities because the opportunities were there. But I'm ready to go watch the film, learn from it, and move on to next week.”
The major takeaway for the Texans, though, was this was a winnable game against a team that outscored them by a combined margin of 62-3 last season in sweeping the annual AFC South division series.
"It sucks, man," defensive end Jonathan Greenard said. "If you can't get a W, it sucks. It's not an L, but it's not a dub. A tie is not a win for us. We're thankful to not get an L in the stat book, but I take it as a personal L."
Colts linebacker E.J. Speed delivered one of the most impactful plays of the game in the fourth quarter.
With the Colts trailing 20-6 after being limited to a field goal when Texans rookie corner and first-round draft pick batted away a potential touchdown in the end zone, Speed lived up to his last name. He came screaming off the edge for a blindside hit on Mills as Tunsil and rookie left guard Kenyon Green blocked a different defender on a double-team. Speed was left unblocked and hit Mills for a sack and forced fumble. That led to Taylor's 2-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.
“It changed it completely," Smith said of the turnover. "We had control. I'll have to watch the video a little bit, but when a guy comes clean like that on the backside, you kind of figure out maybe who the culprit was, but I didn't see it. We'll watch the video, and see from there. Bad, no matter what the situation, bad on our part.”
The Texans displayed signs of progress in some areas, but their running game was stuck in neutral. Burkhead rushed for 40 yards on 14 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Pierce gained 33 yards on 11 carries. Both had a long run of just eight yards.
The Texans rushed for just 77 yards on 28 carries overall and no scores.
"I feel like we did good, especially after we made adjustments at halftime, but they made adjustments to," Pierce said. "I feel like everything we did came down to one block and one cut. There's nothing to point fingers at. We were pretty solid in the run game. There's a few things we could have done differently."
Smith explained the decision to go with Burkhead in a critical situation, attributing the choice to the tenor of the game.
“As we look at the plays now, Rex got a chance to carry the ball more," Smith said. "Passing plays, passing situations, Rex was our lead back in that situation, so that's kind of what happened. In an ideal world, of course, when you have a lead, you would like for that not to be the case, but once they came back at the end, that's when the numbers started changing a little bit.”
The defense was extremely active, including a game-high 18 tackles from linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill followed by 15 tackles by safety Jonathan Owens and 11 tackles from rookie safety Jalen Pitre.
"When you dominate most of the game and don't finish, it's a bittersweet feeling," Owens said. "We did a lot of good things, but it's still tough. I'm not not going to say I'm happy about it, but we did a lot of good and we're going to keep building from it."
Veteran cornerback Steven Nelson took a philosophical approach to this setback after playing in his first game for the Texans.
The Texans were installed as a seven-point underdog.
"It's not a loss, it's one of those things you can build on," he said. "It's obviously not the outcome you want, but it's not a loss. We're looking at the big picture. It's the first game against a really good team. The odds were against us. We came out with a tie. We were up the whole game. We can't beat that football team. I'm not upset. I thought we played really good football.
"We've got some great guys. When times got tight, everybody rallied together and we stepped up like soldiers. That's something we can build on. You stay in the fight."
The Texans weren't the only football team leaving the stadium with an odd feeling.
A tie has that kind of effect.
"I feel incomplete," Colts running back Nyheim Hines. "I feel like I got broken up with, then we got back together. It's a cycle of that. You ever been in a toxic relationship? That's what I feel like: a cycle of that."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.