Over the past few weeks, the Colts have made it their mission to simply go 1-0. It has been their mantra as they have played out a schedule where there wasn’t room for another loss. In many ways that has perfectly prepared them to enter the playoffs, where a loss sends them packing.
While the Colts have grown as a team and gotten healthier and more comfortable inside their new coaching staff’s scheme, the Texans have been humming along, winning games, but at the cost of a number of important playmakers. This matchup between familiar foes is a big one, so let’s take a look at some of the critical matchups to watch in this Wild Card game.
T.Y. Hilton vs Johnathan Joseph/Kareem Jackson
Andrew Luck attempted 103 passes in the two meetings against the Texans in the regular season. Given that according to Football Outsiders the Texans have the best run defense in the league but are ranked 31st in the league against #1 wide receivers, it is safe to say that the matchup of Hilton against the Texans defensive backs would be one to watch.
When you add to the mix that Hilton has 314 yards and 2 touchdowns in his two previous games against the Texans, it definitely gives the feeling that there could be a juicy matchup brewing. However, that isn’t all. Johnathan Joseph in particular didn’t take kindly to Hilton’s reference to NRG stadium being his second home.
Hilton has played through the kind of ankle pain that Frank Reich said would have likely shut him down for a couple weeks were the games not so critical. He looked like a guy who was hurting last week too. If Hilton can get on the field as a semblance of himself and do some damage early, he’ll be a big factor in the way this game plays out.
Braden Smith and Quenton Nelson vs J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney
Normally you would be nervous thinking about pitting two rookies against these outstanding defensive linemen. However, these two rookies aren’t normal. The Colts’ offensive line will head into Saturday’s game with the offensive line healthier than in either of their prior meetings. With the return of Ryan Kelly to the field, the communication across the line will be solid and these two will likely get help to negate the Texans’ playmakers.
If they can do what they’ve done all season and limit defenses in their ability to influence the game in the trenches, it will go a long way toward getting a win. Additionally, the Colts will want these two in the running game. If the Colts can run the ball effectively against the best run defense in the league, it will bode well for their chances throughout the rest of the playoffs.
Colts pass rush vs Texans offensive line
The Colts offensive line has allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL this season. The Texans? They’re on the far other end of the spectrum. They have allowed 62 sacks on the year, which is the worst in the league by 6 sacks. What that means is that the Colts should, and must get consistent pressure on Deshaun Watson and ideally, do so while rushing just 4 guys.
While the Texans’ line has been bad all season, it has gotten worse over the past few weeks, and there really is no reason to think the Colts should not be able to get into the backfield consistently. Margus Hunt, Denico Autry, and Jabaal Sheard may be due big games, and if Kemoko Turay can contribute as well, it will help limit the damage Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Ryan Griffin can do. Given the strength of the Colts run defense, a solid pass rush will essentially shut down this Texans offense.
Anthony Walker vs Ryan Griffin
The most effective receiver in the Colts last matchup with the Texans was tight end Ryan Griffin. He caught 5 of 5 for 80 yards and helped add a dimension to the offense while the Colts were effectively holding DeAndre Hopkins in check.
Anthony Walker is going to have to cover Griffin better and make plays on the ball more consistently in this game to help eliminate Griffin’s usefulness. He didn’t exclusively cover Griffin, but the Texans used him on slants and crosses to regularly eat up 8-9 yards, and those were the responsibility of Walker. It would be great to see him read one of those and get a pick having gotten a good look at how they use him at this point.
Pierre Desir vs DeAndre Hopkins
Pierre Desir did an excellent job limiting Hopkins in their most recent matchup, and they’ll need him to do it again. The Texans will be short on pass catchers, although Keke Coutee looks as though he may be back this week. Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and no matter how good you are, he is going to make plays. What the Colts need to do is make sure those plays are few and far between, and that they aren’t big splash plays that hurt the Colts on the scoreboard. If Desir can have another game like he did in week 14, that would be excellent.
Darius Leonard vs pretty much everyone
Let’s face it, Darius Leonard is going to be on a tear to tackle as many people as he can, tomahawk chopping the ball out of people’s hands whenever possible and generally making opposing offenses shudder with fear. His season has been brilliant, and while there isn’t any particular player I expect to challenge him, I do think that one thing that has always been true in football is that big players show up in big games. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case for Leonard in this game.
Frank Reich vs Bill O’Brien Round 3
One of the advantages going into this game for Frank Reich is that he is looking at a roster that is as healthy as it has been in awhile. The Colts would love to have T.Y. Hilton operating at 100%, but he is good enough at 70% that they will make due. Frank has had two games against this Texans defense under his belt that will have taught him a great deal about things they like to do.
The trend they will almost certainly follow is to make T.Y. Hilton a priority early, at least in appearance. It is already well documented that Hilton has had his way with this Texans team in their stadium. Whether or not he is fully healthy, this team knows what he is capable of and will ignore him at their own risk.
Hilton drawing that added attention will open the field up for guys like Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron, and Nyheim Hines to go to work in the passing game. It is also likely that there will be a concerted effort with his entire offensive line together for the first time against this Texans team, to get the running game established against them early.
Marlon Mack has had some solid games this season, and while it is unlikely that he will go crazy against a stout front seven, if the Colts can move the ball effectively and set up short 2nd and 3rd down situations consistently, it will make them tough to beat. The offense will almost certainly put up points, and the defense is very different from the one that gave up 37 points to them in week 4.
Back on that fateful day, Frank Reich set the tone for how these games would go between the Colts and Texans when he made the call to go for it on 4th down in Colts territory. Whether or not you agree with that decision, it is undeniable that it is one that will make clear to the Texans that this Colts team won’t be playing it safe on Saturday, they’ll be coming to win.