Three Keys: Colts V. Texans, NFL Week 17

Michael Hickey

The Indianapolis Colts (10-5) host the AFC South rival Houston Texans (12-3) in the regular season finale. The Texans are playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs, while the Colts are playing for their coach Chuck Pagano, who returns to the sidelines on Sunday.

his Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts host the division rival Houston Texans in the regular season finale. Both teams are in the playoffs, but let us first take a look at the implications of Sunday's matchup:

For the Texans: The Texans are actually playing for a lot against the Colts. For pretty much the entire season, they have been in the driver's seat for the AFC's number one seed. Currently, they still occupy the top seed at 12-3, thanks to them winning the head to head with Denver (also 12-3). But should Houston lose on Sunday and both Denver and New England win, they would jump the Texans for the top two spots in the conference, thus taking away the Texans' first round bye. With the Patriots playing the Dolphins and the Broncos playing the Chiefs, neither should lose - meaning that the Texans will likely need to win on Sunday to earn a first round bye in the playoffs.

For the Colts: Nothing seeding-wise. The Colts are locked in at the five seed. But that said, I think the Colts have just as much, if not more, to play for than the Texans. The Colts have their coach, Chuck Pagano, to play for in his return. So while the Colts have nothing to gain or lose on Sunday in terms of the postseason, they still have quite a bit to play for in their coach's return.

Before the season, back when I predicted the Colts at 7-9, I still had them winning this game against the Texans. Houston has never won in Indianapolis in their entire existence as a franchise. Here are three keys to a Colts' victory on Sunday:

1. Stop Arian Foster

Arian Foster has played four games against the Colts in his career. In those four games, he has averaged 164 yards per game and 6.7 yards per rush. On the season this year, Foster has gained 1,328 yards, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. He has scored 14 touchdowns on the ground and added 2 touchdowns (and 194 yards) receiving. While the Colts allowed 352 yards rushing last week to the Chiefs and still won, the Chiefs are not the Texans. Houston will win if the Colts give up a lot rushing, especially to Foster. Stopping him will be one of the biggest keys to the Colts earning the win.

2. Protect Andrew Luck

The Colts have allowed 40 sacks this year, and quarterback Andrew Luck has saved countless more sacks along the way. He has been hit and hit and hit again and has spent a lot of time on the ground. The last time the Colts played the Texans (just two weeks ago) they gave up 5 sacks, 3 of which were by the NFL's best defensive player - J.J. Watt. Watt is an absolute force and disrupts any line he goes up against. Currently on the season he has 20.5 sacks, just two shy of tying Michael Strahan's NFL record for a single season. With such a poor offensive line that he is facing in the Colts, don't think for a minute that Watt won't be going for that record. And it's not a stretch to say that he will get it. The Colts need to protect their quarterback and allow him to get the ball out cleanly - if they do that, he will make the plays to win the game.

3. Play #ChuckStrong

Chuck Pagano is back. The Colts have been playing for him all season long, but it will be different having him back on the sidelines. Having him there will get the fans going crazy and will also fire up the team. What remains to be seen is how much coaching Pagano actually will do, but either way the energy the team will have should help a lot, and added to the fact that the fans will be pumped up as well, the Colts should have plenty of motivation and energy. The Colts have been very good at home this year, going 6-1 (with the only loss coming in the last minute to Jacksonville in Pagano's last game on the sidelines for the Colts). This Sunday that home field advantage should approach the passion brought during the Green Bay game right after Pagano's diagnosis.

The Colts have a lot to play for in their coach Chuck Pagano, but the Texans also have a lot to play for in terms of playoff seeding. While the Texans will be the favorite, the Colts can pull the upset. They really weren't far off at Houston just a few weeks ago. Given Pagano's return, I'll take the Colts and say that Houston remains winless in Indianapolis for at least another year.

My prediction: Colts 24, Texans 21

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