By Sam McPherson

With the 27-20 loss last week to the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Texans exemplified a stark contrast between winning and losing by close margins. In the last four seasons, the Colts are 22-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. In the last three years, the Texans are 3-17 in such games. That’s why Indianapolis is shooting for a fourth straight playoff spot, while Houston is trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. In the NFL, you live and die by your record in close games.

In 2013, the Texans went 2-9 in games decided by a TD or less, on their way to a terrible 2-14 record and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Last year, despite rebounding to a 9-7 mark, Houston still posted a 1-5 record in these close games—and missed the postseason. This year, the Texans are already 0-3 in contests with a seven-point or less margin, and at 1-4, they’re looking like a long shot to make the playoffs. Not every close game is created equal, but exactly what does make the difference between Indy’s 22-4 mark and Houston’s 3-17 mark?

Quarterback Play

Yes, the Colts have Andrew Luck, although they beat the Texans with Matt Hasselbeck at QB nonetheless. When Houston’s offense was led by Matt Schaub in 2012, the Texans went 6-0 in close games, including the playoffs, while posting a 12-4 record and winning the AFC South division. In 2011, using three different starting QBs, Houston went 4-5 in close games—still enough to get the team to 10-6 and an AFC South division title. Even the difference between the close-game records of 2011 and 2013-15 is enough to get a team to the playoffs.

You don’t need Indianapolis’ kind of “luck;” you just need to break even (or close to it) in the tight ones. However, the Texans’ unstable QB play for the past three seasons has created challenges in even doing that. Schaub’s game collapsed in 2013, and Case Keenum was 0-8 as a starter that season. Last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was good enough to post a 95.3 QB rating, but only a 6-6 record as a starter. Ryan Mallett (1-1) and Keenum (2-0) started the other four games in 2014.

QB quality is a start to posting good records in close games, but it’s not everything. However, it might help Houston if Head Coach Bill O’Brien could decide on one QB for the rest of the season. Stability does matter here, so whether it’s Mallett or Brian Hoyer, the Texans need a permanent quarterback to ride with this year—for better or for worse.

An Opportune Defense

Obviously, the Colts don’t have a great defense, but somehow, they’ve still managed to put together this incredible streak of close-game wins. Some of that is the stability at QB, but a lot of it is the defense playing better as the game progresses—and giving the offense a chance to win the game late. We’ve seen this with the Texans already this year: In Week 1, the defense threw a second-half shutout at the Kansas City Chiefs, and Houston came back in the fourth quarter before falling short.

On the contrary, in Week 2, the Texans defense broke in the second half, allowing back-to-back touchdowns to the Carolina Panthers right after the Houston offense had tied the game up in the third quarter. The offense wasn’t able to overcome that lapse. Last week, against the Colts, the Texans traded second-half scores and just came up short at the end. If J.J. Watt and the defense could have made one more play, then perhaps the outcome might have been different.

Houston really needs Watt and its other defensive stalwarts to step up and make the difference in these close games. It will count in the standings.

The Schedule Ahead 

The Texans play three more games before their bye week, and all three games are winnable matchups: at Jacksonville, at Miami, and Tennessee at home. The first and third games, of course, are AFC South division contests, and wins there can go a long way toward getting Houston back into the division-title conversation. With some stability at QB and some key defensive improvement, Houston can reverse this trend of losing close games and make a push for the 2015 postseason.

Just say the Texans get to 4-4 at the bye: Houston opens up the second half of the schedule with a road game at Cincinnati and a home game against the New York Jets. Those will be real litmus tests for the Houston Texans when the time comes.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.