This Sunday’s game is, without a doubt, the biggest game in the AFC South this season. The Indianapolis Colts (6-6) host the Houston Texans (6-6) in a week 14 showdown, which will leave one team walking away in first place of the division and the other frantically trying to play catch-up in the final three weeks.
The Colts, Texans, and Titans are all tied atop the division right now, with the Texans holding the tiebreaker for first place. A win for the Colts on Sunday would neutralize the head-to-head tiebreaker and put them also a game up on Houston record-wise. A win for the Texans on Sunday would guarantee them the head-to-head tiebreaker and put them a game-up record-wise. So if the Colts were to lose on Sunday, they would need to make up two games in the final three weeks, since they’d need to finish with a better record than the Texans, not just an equal one.
It’s easy to see, therefore, why the game is such a big deal. The Colts are a team that’s usually saying the standard stuff like ‘it’s a big game because it’s the next game,’ but even they’re admitting that this week is different. As T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen said this week, this is a game seven atmosphere.
That will result in both teams bringing their very best and giving it everything they’ve got, so expect this to once again be a close, hard-fought game - pretty much like it is every time the Colts play the Texans. Only this time, the stakes will be even higher than normal.
The teams have an idea of what to expect, however, as they played in a very similar situation last year. The Colts hosted the Texans last year in mid-December for a huge divisional game, as people at the time pointed out that the winner of that game stood a very good chance of winning the division. Sure enough, the Texans won that game 16-10 and wound up winning the AFC South. This year, the stakes are similar, but this time the Colts will have Andrew Luck.
He missed last year’s December contest with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle and as a result the Colts’ offense struggled to get anything going, amassing just 190 yards and ten points while turning the football over twice. Luck is back this year, and he’s playing as well as he ever has. He’s on pace for a career high in completion percentage (64%), has thrown for 3,105 yards (7.7 yards per attempt), 23 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions for a passer rating of 98.3. He’s also added 272 yards and a touchdown rushing while averaging five yards per carry. He has been tremendous, and that was never more evident than on Monday night when he had one of his best games ever as a pro against the Jets en route to winning the AFC Offensive Player of the Week this week. The Texans will face a quarterback and an offense that’s playing well, and a team that has won three straight games with Luck at quarterback.
Luck’s top target in the passing game is T.Y. Hilton, who is also having a career year. He’s caught 69 passes for 1,088 yards and five touchdowns, and he ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards. He’s historically done very well against the Texans too, as he’s caught 46 passes for 827 yards and six touchdowns against them in nine games. With Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle leading the way in the receiving game, Luck has weapons to throw the football too, and the offensive line has stepped up in recent weeks as well.
The Colts’ offense, on paper, should be able to outscore the Texans’ offense, as they’ve struggled to get things going in the passing game. Brock Osweiler has had a miserable season, completing 59.8% of his passes for 2,509 yards (5.8 yards per attempt), 14 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 74.2, which is the second-lowest in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. They’ve been led by their running game, as Lamar Miller has rushed for 903 yards and three touchdowns on four yards per carry, but overall the Texans’ offense hasn’t been great.
The difference is that the Colts’ offense will be facing a defense that is talented and capable of making plays, whereas the Texans’ offense will be facing a defense that isn’t great. So that will be a wild card factor, as on paper the Colts should outscore the Texans, but Houston does have the much stronger defense, despite the absence of J.J. Watt.
The Colts do have reason for optimism in this game, land it goes beyond the fact that Andrew Luck is back. Earlier this season, when the Colts played the Texans in Houston they dominated the Texans for the first 55 or so minutes of the game... and then everything fell apart. The Colts led 23-9 midway through the fourth quarter, but they then allowed the Texans to mount a stunning comeback and win it in overtime, 26-23. “I remember us playing really well and being up, I don’t know, was it 23-9?” Chuck Pagano recalled this week. “Five minutes to go or three minutes to go and then an artery opened up and blood started gushing and we didn’t have enough gauze and tape and bandages to stop the bleeding so it’s the same thing, that’s momentum and they caught fire and we couldn’t do anything about it, didn’t do anything about it. You learn from that, you watch it and you grow and see how it happened and what you have to do to prevent that from happening or at least stop the bleeding if you will.”
While it's cliche to say “we’ll learn from it” or something like that, in this case perhaps the Colts have. Early on in the season (and in past seasons), they've had trouble starting games and would too often fall behind big early. They jumped out to a fast start in the Texans game, but they finished terribly. Since that game, we’ve seen plenty more examples of the Colts starting fast but cooling off late, flirting with blowing another game near the end. But the Colts have learned how to close at the end, led by Luck (who has essentially clinched two of the past four games with late third completions). Perhaps the Colts have actually learned from that collapse at Houston earlier this year, and perhaps they're now better-suited for a 60-minute game? While that might be giving them too much credit, you get the point: they’ve gotten better at closing out games.
What impact does that have on Sunday’s game? Well, if the game’s really as close as many expect then it may very well come down to plays near the end, and the Colts can actually be somewhat trusted there recently. And with Andrew Luck, the Colts stand a very real chance in any game.
This Sunday’s game will be for the division, and I fully expect it to be a hard-fought, close battle between two not-great teams. Given the fact that the Colts outplayed the Texans in their first meeting this year, the fact that the Colts are playing their best football as of late, the fact that the game is in Indianapolis, and the fact that Andrew Luck is back and is playing at a high level, I'm taking the Colts in this one.
Predicted Score: Colts 27, Texans 23