Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (5-5) face the Indianapolis Colts (10-0) on Sunday at Reliant Stadium. Fans are encouraged to wear blue for Deep Steel Sunday presented by FS Houston. Kickoff is at noon CT.
Slowing down Manning:Three weeks ago at Indianapolis, the Colts stormed out to a 13-0 lead over the Texans with Peyton Manning directing a no-huddle offense. Manning threw 25 passes in the first quarter and was 26-of-40 for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the first half alone. He finished 34-of-50 for 318 yards.
Manning is on pace for 5,073 yards this season, which would be just 11 yards short of Dan Marino's all-time single-season record. He leads the league in passing yards (3,171) and completion percentage (69.8), is tied for second in touchdown passes (21) and ranks fourth in passer rating (102.7).
As has long been the case against Manning, the best defense is a good offense. The Texans demonstrated that in Week 9 when they racked up 283 yards in the second half, allowing Manning and Co. to be on the field for only 8:25. In that same half, Mario Williams and Antonio Smith sacked Manning, who has been sacked a league-low eight times this season. That type of defensive pressure could go a long way toward a victory on Sunday.
Safety shuffle:Eugene Wilson was placed on injured reserve this week with toe injuries, leaving John Busing as his expected replacement as the Texans' starting free safety. Second-year safety Dominique Barber, who is recovering from an ankle injury, also will be in the mix.
Wilson was tied for the team lead with two interceptions and was a heads-up centerfielder for the defense. Busing, who started at Week 3 against Jacksonville, recorded three tackles in less than a half after replacing Wilson versus Tennessee. His second go-round with the first-team defense comes against the league's most prolific passing attack.
"I'm not too concerned about it," Busing said. "I'm out here with them every day. Even though I wasn't getting the majority of the snaps with them, I still practice with them every day. So I'm comfortable going back in there and playing well."
The change at free safety will magnify the importance of strong safety Bernard Pollard. He had the best game of his career in Week 9 against the Colts, thwarting two potential scoring drives with interceptions and recording a career-high 12 tackles.
Running back attack:Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Friday that running backs Chris Brown and Steve Slaton will split time like they did Monday night against the Titans. Who starts likely will depend on what play the Texans run to open the game.
Both backs started last week when the Texans opened with Brown at fullback and Slaton at tailback. Kubiak said that the coaching staff decided they needed to get Brown more involved while watching film during the bye week. Brown had 11 carries to Slaton's five, while Slaton got five catches to Brown's three. Ryan Moats, who had three touchdowns in Week 8 at Buffalo and 16 carries the following week at Indianapolis, was active but did not play.
In Week 9, the Texans outrushed the Colts 81-72 in yardage and won the time of possession battle 34:33-25:27. On the season, the Texans rank 30th in the league in rushing with 87.4 yards per game.
Tight end watch: Tight ends figure to make a significant impact on Sunday's game. The Colts' Dallas Clark leads all NFL tight ends with 65 receptions for 771 yards this season. He had 14 catches for 119 yards on 14 receptions against the Texans in Week 9. Second-year tight end Tom Santi had six catches for 80 in the Colts' victory at Baltimore last week.
The Texans' offense is still adjusting to life without Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 8 at Buffalo. Houston has scored 17 points in both games since losing Daniels after averaging 24.4 points per game with Daniels.
In two games as Daniels' replacement in the starting lineup, Joel Dreessen has 38 yards on three receptions, two which went for first downs. Rookie tight end James Casey had two catches last week, including a 32-yarder. He was targeted twice on third down, so it's obvious that Matt Schaub and the Texans have confidence in his abilities.
Finishing strong:The Texans are 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less this season. They came up a yard short of forcing overtime in early-season losses to the Jaguars and Cardinals, and a missed field goal has sealed their fate in back-to-back three-point losses.
Kris Brown, the only kicker in Texans history, is 2-of-5 on field goals in the last two games. Brown had the best two seasons of his career in 2007 and 2008, when he hit 87.1 of his kicks.
"I talked to him a lot on Wednesday," Kubiak said. "He's a great kid and he works hard at what he does. He obviously struggled the last few weeks. That's part of this league. Good players bounce back and get it done, so we're expecting him to do that."
The Colts, by contrast, are the league's best finishers. They won their first two games this season by a combined six points. Over the last four weeks, they've beaten their opponents by a combined 10 points. That includes their three-point victory over the Texans, in which Manning went 3-of-4 for 38 yards on the Colts' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
"We've got to find a way to finish a game," Kubiak said. "Whoever's got to make that play, whether it's a kick, a throw, a sack, an interception— we've been in some great games, but good teams find a way to win those games. Look at the Colts… look at the last three or four games they've won. They win low-scoring, they win high-scoring. You've got to find a way to win. We've been there, and we haven't made the play at the end to get it done."