All of the work put in during the offseason, training camp, preseason, and the first 14 weeks of the 2015 NFL season boils down to three games for the Indianapolis Colts. Or, perhaps, one game. On Sunday, the Colts will host the Houston Texans for a massive showdown in the AFC South, one that will give the winner the clear inside track to the playoffs and the loser the clear inside track to watching the playoffs from home.
Both teams are 6-7 and tied atop the division with just three weeks remaining, though the Colts currently own the tie-breaker thanks to their head-to-head victory over the Texans earlier this season. The winner of Sunday's game would not only hold the one-game lead in terms of record but would also hold the better record against division opponents, which is the third tiebreaker. So, in other words, if the Colts win on Sunday, they would have a better record, have two head-to-head wins (the first tiebreaker), and have a better division record (the third tiebreaker, which wouldn't be necessary unless the Texans win to even up the head-to-head). So I think you can begin to see that, with just a couple of weeks remaining, this game is huge.
The Texans have never won in Indianapolis, even when the Colts were the worst team in the league in 2011. That doesn't have a ton of bearing on this week's game, but it does show how dominant the Colts have been in this series - going 23-4 all-time against the Texans.
This time, however, the Colts' grip on the division has loosened a bit and the Texans are looking to capitalize. It will be a battle of Matt Hasselbeck and T.J. Yates at quarterback, which could result in some ugly offensive play. The bottom line for both teams, however, is winning. It doesn't matter how it looks, the most important thing is simply winning. That was the message in the Colts' locker room this week, and it was simple: WIN.
It's really that simple - it doesn't matter about style points, it just matters about winning, because if the Colts win this one, they are very likely headed for the playoffs for the fourth straight season. If they lose? They'll need help to get in. Here's a preview of the biggest game of the year in the AFC South:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Texans Defense
This one is simple to say yet tough to do: the Colts have to take the pressure off of Matt Hasselbeck, both literally and figuratively. Hasselbeck admitted on Thursday when talking to the media that he's pretty beat up and that the biggest issue is playing well through the injuries. He said that heavy breathing is still the hardest thing, which is kind of important when playing a football game. He will play and Chuck Pagano is confident that Hasselbeck will play well, but the Colts need to do whatever they can to keep Hasselbeck upright and not having to throw the ball 40-plus times to win. It starts up front with the offensive line, a unit that has struggled in the past few weeks. They should be helped out by the return of Anthony Castonzo, but they will also be facing an intimidating pass rush featuring J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney. They absolutely have to protect a banged-up Hasselbeck on Sunday - but, again, that's much easier said than done. They also have to be able to provide enough lanes to run so that Frank Gore can make plays on the ground, further easing some of the pressure off of Hasselbeck. There's no doubt about the fact that the Colts will need their quarterback to make some plays in order for them to win, but trying to limit it so he's not throwing on almost every play and yet the offense is still having success is important. So I'll identify the key matchup here as the one in the trenches. The Colts' offensive line absolutely has to protect the quarterback and has to clear enough room to run. Otherwise, the Colts' offense will be in big trouble on Sunday.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Texans Offense
The Texans' offense runs through DeAndre Hopkins. He has caught 89 passes this year (tied for 4th in the NFL) on 159 targets (2nd) for 1,221 yards (4th) and 10 touchdowns (T-6th), gaining 70 first downs (2nd) and averaging 13.7 yards per catch (37th). In other words, Hopkins has been central to everything the Texans do, but looking at the numbers of the other receivers makes it even clearer. Hopkins has more than double the receiving yards (629 more), receptions (47 more), and receiving first downs (42 more) as any other Texans receiver and more than triple the touchdowns (7 more) than the next closest Texans receiver in each category. Add to that the running game, which is led by Alfred Blue and his 444 yards and two scores on the season, and it's clear that the Texans offense depends heavily (and, at times, solely) on DeAndre Hopkins. The good news for opposing teams, then, is that if you take away Hopkins you severely handicap the Texans' offense. The bad news for opposing teams, though, is that Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the league and is hard to shut down. For the Colts, it will be even harder to do as they struggle to generate pass rush, but if they can succeed in focusing on Hopkins and limiting his effectiveness, it should be a solid day overall for the defense.
Why the Colts Will Win
Earlier this year, the Colts defeated the Texans on the road 27-20 in just their second game with Matt Hasselbeck, playing their second game in five days, and with their quarterback feeling very sick. This time around, then, things should be at least somewhat easier, right? Granted, the Texans have improved quite a bit since then, but the Colts have done it before in a tough situation. And this week, their backs are up against the wall. They know that if they lose this game, they might very well miss out on the playoffs and would absolutely guarantee that their head coach - who they like and respect - would be fired. If they win, though, they will likely make the playoffs. Like Chuck Pagano said on Monday, I don't know how you can NOT get up for this game. The Colts should be energized and ready to play.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The last two weeks are as good of an example as any of why the Colts are in no way guaranteed to win this game. The Texans' offense isn't to be compared to the Steelers or Jaguars offenses, but if the Colts' defense struggles like in the past two weeks even the Texans could put up some points with T.J. Yates under center. Furthermore, the offensive concerns are glaring, as the Colts have scored 10 and 16 points in the last two weeks - that won't win many games regardless of how the defense does. That's a far more concerning aspect for the Colts, as they will need their offense to have a few nice drives and get some points on the scoreboard or it won't matter how the defense does. With an injured Matt Hasselbeck, that could be a concern.
I've gone back and forth on my prediction this week. It's a matchup between two relatively bad football teams in the biggest game of the season in the AFC South, and I am not feeling confident in picking either team. With that said, I think the Colts' defense should return to a solid level of play against the Texans offense and I think
the Colts offense Adam Vinatieri can put up some points if given the chance. As long as the Colts capitalize on a couple of drives and turn them into more than field goals, I think they can win. So I'll take the Colts at home in a very close (and perhaps very ugly) game that comes down to the fourth quarter.