The Texans (11-5) host the Colts (10-6) Saturday afternoon in an AFC Wild Card playoff. It's the third meeting between the squads, with the road team winning once each. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at 3:35 p.m. CT inside NRG Stadium. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Bright lights, brighter Watson – In his 23 years on Earth, Deshaun Watson has shown a calmness and ability to thrive in high-pressure, prime time football games. He guided Clemson to a pair of National Title game appearances against mighty Alabama teams, and his Tigers were victorious the second time around with a comeback win.
His Texans have won all four nationally-televised games this season, with Watson throwing 10 touchdowns and just one interception, and completing 78 percent of his passes for over 1,100 yards. The stakes are high again, as the loser of this game won't play again until September.
"It's a whole new season, a whole new speed of game," Watson said. "So it's going to be new for me, of course, because it's my first one. It's going to be a lot of fun. Every play counts. Every moment counts. You can't slip up. You have to go out there and be able to focus and be locked in at every moment."
Watson's thrown 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions since the start of Week 7, and he's not been picked off since the middle of November. As the season's progressed, so too has his game.
"His decision-making and the rate at which he can make those decisions based on what happens after the ball is snapped, that's something that's improved with the more he's played," quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "It's been impressive. I think his leadership and his communication to his teammates about what he needs them to do, what he expects them to do based on what he's seeing, especially with the receiving corps and tight ends and backs, the guys that are running routes for him. I think he's really stepped up his game that way."
The Colts said they'll do their best to try and keep Watson in the pocket.
"There is a term, 'Keep him in the well,'" Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "Any time you get a playmaker like this at quarterback who can extend plays the way he does – big, strong, physical, can move – the more you can just keep him in the well the better off we'll be."
2) Roll on, run game – In three December contests against the Colts at home, and then at the Jets and Eagles, the Texans running game was bottled up. The running backs combined to gain just 83 yards on 43 carries in that trio of games. But they bounced back in last Sunday's win over the Jaguars, as Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue teamed up to gain 68 yards on 20 carries, which complemented Watson's game-high 66 yards on 13 carries. Houston finished with 134 yards on the day, and was able to chip away at Jacksonville for 4.1 yards a pop on the ground.
In three of their five 2018 losses, the Texans failed to gain 100 yards as a team running the ball. In their 11 wins, Houston averaged 136 rushing yards. Their 16-game average of 126.3 was the 8th-best in the NFL, and continuing that will go a long way toward keeping Andrew Luck and company on the sidelines.
3) Speaking of Luck – The Colts quarterback, who played his high school ball on the west side of Houston at Stratford, has won six of 10 meetings with the Texans. After throwing a combined seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his first three games against Houston, the Texans have managed to pick him off in six of the last seven contests, and sack him 16 times in those games. He was excellent in 2018, completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards, with 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
"He can make all the throws – outside the numbers, down the field, short throws, accurate throws, touch passes – he's a very smart guy," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He gets them into the right play. Just has a real good command of their offense. I just think he's one of the best."
Jadeveon Clowney, who sacked Luck twice in the first meeting, and scored a touchdown on a botched snap in the end zone, said the Colts quarterback is relentless.
"Just like our quarterback, he never quits, never thinks the play's over," Clowney said. "We've got to get after him up front. I think it's going to come down to us as a front. We say that each week. It's going to come down to our front, and we've got to play well up front. We put a lot of pressure on our front. Lean on us the whole game and we're going to get after the quarterback."
4) Tie up T.Y. – Luck's favorite target is receiver T.Y. Hilton, who finished with 76 caches for 1,270 yards and six scores. It was the fifth 1,000-yard season of his seven-year career, and he saved some of his best performances in 2018 for the Texans. Hilton caught four passes for 115 yards in the Week 4 loss to Houston, and hauled in nine passes for 199 yards in the Colts win at NRG Stadium in December.
"He's an exceptional wide receiver," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "I think he has a great quarterback. I think they do a lot of great things with him just trying to find different ways to get him the football, especially in big games. I think they're going to draw it up, obviously with him having that ankle, every ball may not go to him, so we just got to be real keyed in on him throughout the entire game and not let up."
O'Brien said the Texans defense will be challenged mightily by Hilton, and that they need limit any damage from the veteran pass-catcher.
"You're not going to hold him to no yards receiving," O'Brien said. "Especially with the rules the way they are. You can't hit a guy after five yards, so that's virtually impossible, but you've got to try to control what we call the X-plays, the 80-yard bombs and things like that."
5) Get turnovers – The season for the Texans swung dramatically at the end of September in a positive way, in large part to turnover differential. At 0-3, the Texans had turned the ball over two more times than they'd taken it away from teams, and their minus-2 turnover differential was tied for 24th worst in the NFL. From Week 4 on, every game but one saw them finish positively or even in that category, and Houston went 11-2 over the final 13 contests.
Ultimately, at plus-13 on the season in turnover differential, the Texans were second-best in the NFL in that statistic. They were plus-1 in each of their games against Indianapolis, and finishing on the positive side in that category has been of paramount importance for O'Brien.
"That does have a lot to do with winning and losing," O'Brien said. "If you can take care of the football, if you can really possess the ball at the end of every play and you can take the ball away with your defense and your coverage units on special teams, you've got a real shot to win games. I think that's one of the things we've done a really good job of this year."
The Houston Texans roster in photos.