The Texans (3-6) head to Indianapolis to play in Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time. The Colts (5-4) are on a two-game winning streak and look very different from the team the Texans faced in Week 5.
1. A different team:Indianapolis is coming off of back-to-back wins over AFC rivals New England and Pittsburgh, and looking like a team much improved from the one that visited Houston on Oct. 5.
"I think all of them, they're just all playing a little more confidently," right tackle Eric Winston said. "It seems like they know what they're all supposed to be doing and flying to the football. They're running well. They're not doing a lot of things different. I think they're just doing them a little bit better."
The Colts look better in part because they are healthier. Quarterback Peyton Manning, who missed the preseason with an infected bursa sac, has gotten his timing back and found a rhythm with his receivers. Center Jeff Saturday, strong safety Bob Sanders and outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler have returned from injuries.
The last time these teams met, the Texans had success getting pressure on Manning and running the football. They will stick with that formula, but they will have to be even better at executing this time around.
"I think we did some really good things against them the last time," tight end Owen Daniels said. "It obviously showed us that we can go toe-to-toe with them and really outplay them. It's going to be different, though, at their place. They play a little more confidently, and I think their defense is a little better when they play at home. So it's going to be another challenge, but we have confidence in what we did against them last time and how we've been moving the ball."
2. What a difference Sanders makes: Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders returned to action two weeks ago, and he's changed the complexion of the Colts' defense.
"They do different things when he's in there, and he's all over the place," Daniels said. "He's a game-changing guy for them, a big-play guy. We expect him to be flying around like he always does."
Sanders has the strength to play in the box, almost like an additional linebacker, but he's also fast enough to cover in the secondary. The Texans will try to keep Sanders guessing by running a balanced attack through the air and on the ground.
"It's important for me because I've got to go out there and dig him out and create lanes for Ahman (Green) and Steve (Slaton) and those guys running the ball," wide receiver Kevin Walter said. "He's a big part of their defense. They're a different defense when he's in. He's physical. He's in the right spot. He's a tackling machine, and we've got to account for him."
With Sanders back in the lineup, the Colts have allowed a combined 195 yards rushing in their last two games. Against the Steelers last Sunday, Indy intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times.
"With their defense, what they do is they don't allow almost any big plays," quarterback Sage Rosenfels said. "They really make you earn it. You really have to execute 100 percent on every play and stay on track for first downs because you do not want to be in third-and-10s or third-and-nines. You want to be in third-and-twos or -threes or get first downs on first or second down."
3. Establishing the run: The Texans will look to establish the run early against a Colts' rushing defense that ranks 24th in the league, giving up 133.8 yards per game.
"There's no secret that the teams that have beaten these guys have done a pretty good job of running the ball," Rosenfels said. "Running the ball does a couple of things. It keeps your offense on the field and obviously moving the ball but also keeps Peyton off the field. That's as important as anything, because he can't score many points when he's on the sideline."
The Texans also relied on the run to put points on the board in their last game against Indy. Slaton ran for 93 yards on 16 carries and scored two touchdowns.
The Texans monitored Slaton's reps this week to get him fresh for Sunday's game because they know he will be carrying a heavy load.
4. Sage gets another shot: Rosenfels, for the most part, played an outstanding game in Week 5 against the Colts. His five-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson was one of only two passing scores the Colts have allowed all season. But his 21-of-33, 246-yard passing performance was marred by three late turnovers that helped the Colts come back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull off a shocking win.
Rosenfels said this week that he has tried to put that game behind him, and if there's anything he's focusing on from that earlier meeting, it's the positive things the Texans did that allowed them to gain 391 yards of total offense and hold the ball for 31:21.
"We have to take the things we did well in the first game, which we did a lot of good things for the majority of that game, and try to do some of those same things again," Rosenfels said. "They are playing with a lot of confidence right now, as they should be. Bob Sanders is back playing with them… Their defense is getting better as the season progresses, and we're going to have our work cut out for us this week."
Rosenfels was 4-1 as a starter last season, throwing for 951 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions with an 85.1 passer rating in his five starts. Minimizing mistakes this Sunday will be critical to his success – and the team's – a week after Rosenfels threw four interceptions against an opportunistic Baltimore Ravens defense.
"You just have to keep going out there and keep battling," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "As I said last week, he's got to make plays for us to win, and I don't want to get conservative by any means. I want him to go play his position and play it well. If he does that, he'll give us a chance."
5. Don't forget about 'Dre: Johnson has had a quiet few weeks after posting 593 receiving yards in the month of October. It's no coincidence that during that four-week span, the Texans won three games.
In order for the Texans to pull out a win at Indy, 'Dre will need to have a big day. The two-time Pro Bowl receiver caught nine passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in Week 5. Sanders was on the sidelines during that game, but this time around, the Colts could be missing their starting cornerbacks.
Kelvin Hayden did not practice this week and is listed as questionable because of a hamstring injury. Marlin Jackson is out for the rest of the year with a knee injury.
The Colts' pass defense ranks seventh, giving up just 191 yards per game. Their coverage might not be as tight without Hayden and Jackson.
And Johnson has the ability to make a defense pay for any openings he gets.