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Texans at Colts: What to watch for

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 30: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans throws a pass in the 2nd quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

Taking control

The AFC South is becoming a two-team race – the Titans and Jaguars appear to be absolute messes – which magnifies the importance of the gathering at Lucas Oil Stadium. The winner takes control of the division while the loser is relegated to a chaser’s role.

And here’s an incredible reality: with a win, the Colts grab sole possession of the division lead for the first time since week 9 of the 2015 season. Indy was 4-5 and Houston 3-5. The Texans would post the stronger closing kick that season and win the AFC South at 9-7, one step ahead of the 8-8 Colts.

For so long, Indy owned the AFC South. They’ve won nine division titles since 2002, four more than Houston. But the Texans have claimed three of the last four. Indy’s last division title was 2014.

At the risk of looking ahead – yeah, we tend to do that – the Colts are heading into a stretch of their schedule that’s conducive to setting themselves up for a meaningful December. If – we emphasize if – they take care of business Sunday, consider the next four games: home with Denver (2-5), at Pittsburgh (2-4), home with Miami (0-5), home with Jacksonville (2-4).

If the Colts consider themselves a legitimate playoff contender – or more – now is the time to step up.

“It’s a huge game. Division game,’’ T.Y. Hilton said. “The winner of this is the leader of the division. You always look back week 12-13 and look at the games you should have won. We’ve got to try to get this one.’’

Can T.Y. keep it going?

Hilton’s success against the Texans reached comedic levels heading into the first-round playoff meeting in Houston in January. Remember him wearing a clown mask into NRG Stadium in reaction to Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph calling him a “clown’’ for referring to the venue as his second home? Hilton had clowned the Texans a month earlier with nine catches and 199 yards.

Funny stuff, unless you’re the Texans. In 15 career games against Houston, Hilton has 81 receptions, 1,530 yards and nine TDs. He’s posted seven of his career 33 100-yard games against the Texans, including his career-best 223 yards in 2014.

Why the dominance?

“I just go out there and do my job, man,’’ Hilton said. “I take what they give me. I guess they give me a lot.’’

The Texans never seem to flex their coverage to limit Hilton’s effectiveness, but perhaps that’s about to change.

“He’s a talented guy who’s had a lot of success against us in the past,’’ said safety Justin Reid, “so we’re gonna change some things up, give him some different looks, play him a little differently than how we did in the past to take him out of the game.’’

One question if that works: What took you so long?

Another question: how effective can the Texans be on the back end. One starting corner, Bradley Roby, is out with a hamstring injury. The other, Johnathan Joseph, was limited in practice this week with a hamstring issue. This might be an opportunity for Jacoby Brissett to be more aggressive in the passing game. Through five games, he ranks near the bottom on the league in yards per attempt (6.4) and yards per completion (9.8). The Colts have just nine completions that have gained at least 20 yards.

Defensive encore?

Coordinator Matt Eberflus tossed a near perfect game at Patrick Mahomes and the prolific Chiefs two weeks ago. He primarily got pressure from his front four – three of the four sacks and six of the eight QB hits came from Justin Houston, Kemoko Turay, Jabaal Sheard and Grover Stewart – while dialing up man-to-man coverage at least 80% of the time. The blueprint snapped the Chiefs’ league-best streak of 25 straight games with at least 25 points.

So, what does Eberflus have up his sleeves this week? We would argue the Texans pose a stronger threat than the Chiefs, who were without Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins. Houston is loaded with MVP candidate Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee, Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and the tight end tandem of Darren Fells and Jordan Akins. The Texans’ offense ranks in the top 10 in every significant category: total yards (No. 6), scoring (No. 8), rushing (No. 5) and passing (No. 10) and third-down efficiency (No. 1).

The Colts had success using Pierre Desir in frequent man coverage against Hopkins in the last two wins in Houston in December and January. Hopkins managed a modest nine catches for 73 yards and one TD on 20 targets in the two games after going off for 10 catches and 169 yards and one TD in the overtime win in Indy.

Personnel issues might keep Eberflus from relying too much on man matchups Sunday. Kenny Moore II is out with a knee injury and Desir is a game-time decision after missing practice all week with a hamstring issue. The healthy corners consist of Quincy Wilson and three rookies – Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III and Shakial Taylor. Ya-Sin has started three games but Tell and Taylor made their first NFL appearances on defense at Kansas City.

Run vs. run

Two teams with different approaches in the run game enter Lucas Oil with virtually identical bottom lines. The Colts boast the NFL’s 4th-ranked attack (142.0) while the Texans are a half-beat behind in 5th (139.8). Indy has leaned heavily on Marlon Mack, who’s accounted for 101 of the 133 attempts by backs (75.9 percent) while averaging 94 yards per game and 4.7 per attempt. Houston has divvied things up among Hype (99 carries, 426 yards, 3 TDs), Johnson (37, 239) and Watson (32, 164, 5 TDs).

While Brissett has been efficient and Watson prolific throwing the ball, we’re expecting each team to make a concerted effort to establish its running game at the outset. That might be especially true with Frank Reich. In the Colts’ 21-7 wild-card playoff win in January, they overwhelmed Houston with 200 yards on the ground, including a team post-season record 148 from Mack.

For those wondering, Houston might have the defensive edge. It ranks No. 8 against the run, allowing 88 yards per game. The Colts are 19th, but are coming off a solid performance at Arrowhead. The Chiefs finished with 36 yards on 14 attempts.

Watson is the wild card. He possesses better mobility than Mahomes and is more apt to tuck it and run. Houston also uses him on options.

“To me, I think Watson looks to run the ball a little more and has a little more speed than Pat Mahomes,’’ Justin Houston said. “But I think it’s very similar. They make a lot of big plays outside the pocket.’’

The return of Darius Leonard following a three-game absence due to a concussion could be key. He has the speed and instincts to track down Watson in the open field. In the three meetings last season, Leonard piled up 38 tackles.

And the winner is: Colts 24 – Texans 23

This is one of those coin-flip games. We’re going with the home team simple because they’re the home team. The injuries in the secondary are a major concern, but if the Colts are going to be relevant in December and beyond, this is the type of game they must find a way to win. Everything starts with winning the AFC South and Sunday is a significant step in that direction.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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