What to watch for: For Colts, it’s win or forget it in pursuit of playoff berth
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ rematch with the Houston Texans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Now or never: After failing to finish against Detroit, getting embarrassed in London by Jacksonville, coughing up a 14-point fourth quarter lead at Houston and getting rolled at home by Kansas City, the Colts find themselves in position to take control of the oh-so-winnable AFC South. Incredible but true, but that’s the reality in a division that features a three-way tie at 6-6 among Indy, Houston and Tennessee with four games to play.
“It’s Game 7, must-win,’’ offered wideout T.Y. Hilton.
Added coach Chuck Pagano: “Yeah, there are no trophies for second place, right? I saw a good YouTube video of a basketball coach explaining that. I think it was the women’s basketball coach From Louisville talking about our society today and everybody gets trophies . . . you could finish fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and everybody gets a trophy and everybody goes home happy.
“But that isn’t real life. There’s only one trophy. There’s only one division champ. That’s how (the Texans are) treating it and that’s how we’re treating it.’’
If the Colts are able to atone for that massive meltdown two months ago in Houston, they’ll find themselves at least sharing the division lead with Tennessee Sunday evening. The Titans meet Denver in Nashville Sunday afternoon. And here’s where we remind you Indy wins just about every tiebreaker with the Titans based on having swept them. Start another home win streak against Houston – the Texans ended their 0-for-13 history last year with a 16-10 win – and the Colts settle into the divisional driver’s seat.
The bottom line: we’re expecting today’s winner at Lucas Oil Stadium to win the AFC South, and the loser to be essentially, but not mathematically, eliminated. So, yeah, there’s motivation.
Force the action: The Colts have shed their proclivity for slow starts and traded it in for immediate productivity. In Andrew Luck’s last three starts – he missed the Pittsburgh loss with a concussion – Indy has scored at least 14 points in each, and that early momentum has been instrumental in three victories. Not impressed? You should be. The last time the Colts scored at least two first-quarter TDs three times in a season was 2004. They’ve won six straight in such games and 21 of their last 22.
“Every game and every series is about execution and fortunately we have executed well the past few games at the beginning of the games and been able to get some points on the board,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said.
The Colts have followed their leader. In his last three starts, Luck has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt and 13.3 yards per completion. He’s passed for 799 yards with 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and a 104.4 passer rating.
“I think when 12 is playing, it’s a big difference,’’ running back Frank Gore said. “Everybody is up and everybody is playing together as one. He gets us to play hard, talking to us in the huddle and helping us. Even when he calls the play it’s different.’’
Nothing easy: It’s easier said that done, but the Colts’ 28th-ranked defense must make Brock Osweiler and the Texans earn everything they get. Houston’s offense is among the NFL’s meekest: 28th in yards per game (316.1), 30th in yards per play (4.8), 32nd in passing yards (194.9) and 28th in scoring (17.25 per game). It has scored more than two touchdowns in a game once, and that was when it overcame a 23-9 fourth-quarter deficit against the Colts in Houston and rallied for a 26-23 overtime win.
There’s no reason to believe Osweiler will suddenly quiet his mounting critics and inject life into Houston’s offense. After 12 games, you are who you are. He’s 5-1 at home, 1-5 on the road. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per pass attempt, dead last among qualifying QBs.
That in mind, it’s imperative Ted Monachino’s defense, one that will be without four starters and could start three rookies, doesn’t offer the Texans a helping hand. The biggest concern with Antonio Morrison, a rookie, and Edwin Jackson, in his first season on the field, working side-by-side at inside linebacker is a lack of communication leading to blown coverage and a gashing play. Houston features a pair of solid tight ends in C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin – a combined 83 receptions and 5 TDs. Morrison is the prototypical “box’’ linebacker, meaning he’s effective in short spaces against the run but can be a liability in space.
Along with featuring their tight ends, no one should be surprised if the Texans hammer away on the ground with Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue. Miller is eighth in the league in rushing with 903 yards, and smacked the Colts’ 20th-ranked run defense for 149 yards two months ago.
Our primary concern, though, remains the absence of veteran D’Qwell Jackson, the defensive QB, leading to an occasional miscommunication, a botched assignment and a Texan running free in the secondary.
And the winner is: Colts 31, Texans 17. From our vantage point, this one’s completely in the hands of the Colts. If their Luck-led offense continues to perform at a high level, the Texans won’t be able to keep up, even against Indy’s patchwork D. But we’d be remiss if we failed to remind everyone the Colts are capable of making a mess of things. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve learned from their past pratfalls.