Here are five things to watch when the Texans (11-2, 4-0 AFC South) face the Indianapolis Colts (9-4, 3-1 AFC South) in Week 15 at Reliant Stadium. Kickoff is on Sunday at noon CT.
1. Stopping Luck: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Stanford, is living up to his lofty expectations and then some in a historic rookie season.
Luck already has surpassed Peyton Manning (3,739) for the Colts' rookie passing yardage record and is 259 passing yards away from Cam Newton's NFL rookie record (4,051). A Houston native who starred at Stratford High School and whose father, Oliver, played quarterback for the Houston Oilers, Luck has led six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, the most by a rookie since 1970. He has as many rushing touchdowns (five) as the rest of the entire Colts team combined.
Luck has a passer rating of 66.6 on the road compared to 81.8 at home and has thrown eight touchdowns with 13 interceptions in six road games.
Texans coaches and players have compared Luck to Ben Roethlisberger for his ability to brush off pass rushers and extend plays. Defensive end Antonio Smith compared him to Steve Young for his fearlessness as a runner and willingness to get physical and block for his teammates. The ability of J.J. Watt and company to corral Luck in the backfield and open field could be key to the Texans' defensive success.
2. Texans ground game: The Texans haven't run the ball effectively the last two weeks, averaging 3.7 yards per carry with 100 yards at New England and 3.6 yards per carry with 125 yards at Tennessee. Arian Foster ranks sixth in the NFL with 1,148 rushing yards and leads the league with 15 touchdowns but is averaging a career-low 3.9 yards per carry. The Texans are averaging 4.1 yards per carry as a team (19th in the NFL) after averaging 4.5 in 2011 and 4.8 in 2010.
Earlier in the season, Foster often got the ball late in games when the Texans had a comfortable lead and teams stacked eight or nine players in the box to stop him. He also has gotten a higher volume of carries this season with 2011 backup Ben Tate missing five games with hamstring and toe injuries.
Foster and the running game should be helped by right tackle Derek Newton, who is returning to the starting lineup from a two-week absence because of a knee injury. Rookie Brandon Brooks has been rotating in some at right guard with Ben Jones.
In three career games against the Colts, Foster has 491 rushing yards (6.9 per carry) and five touchdowns, including a franchise-record 231 yards and three scores on opening day in 2010.
3. 3rd down: On Tuesday, a day after the Texans' 42-14 loss at New England, coach Gary Kubiak said his biggest concern with the Texans' offense is their ability to convert on third down.
The Texans were just 4-of-14 (28.6%) on third down at New England. They were also 0-of-2 on fourth down, with several dropped passes among the failed third- and fourth-down conversions. They had 177 yards in the first half but zero points.
A week earlier at Tennessee, the Texans were just 4-of-17 (23.5%) on third down. The Texans rank 27th in the NFL in third-down percentage (30.5) since their Week 8 bye after ranking fourth in third-down percentage (45.2) through the first seven weeks of the season.
"If you're making third downs, you're staying on the field, you've got possession time, you're helping your defense, all those things," Kubiak said. "I think it's been something that we're addressing that we're disappointed in, and it's going to have to get a lot better if we're going to play better here down the stretch."
The Colts rank 17th in defensive third-down percentage (38.7).
4. Schaub: Like the entire team, Texans quarterback Matt Schuab is coming off one of his worst performances of the season.
Schaub was 19-of-32 (59.4 percent) for 232 passing yards, zero touchdowns and one interception with a 68.8 passer rating at New England. It was his fourth-lowest completion percentage and third-lowest passer rating of the season. It was his first game without a touchdown pass since Week 6 against Green Bay and only the second time this season he had a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio.
After the Texans' loss to Green Bay, Schaub rebounded with a stellar performance against Baltimore, completing 62.2 percent of his passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns (100.7 rating) in a 43-13 victory. In six home starts this season, Schaub is 5-1 with a 105.0 passer rating. He has completed 68.7 completion percent of his passes for 1,751 yards (8.3 yards/attempt), 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He is 25-12 overall at Reliant Stadium with a passer rating of 94.5.
5. Mercilus: Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus has six sacks this season, tying the Texans' single-season rookie record set by Brooks Reed in 2011. He's also tied for second in sacks among all NFL rookies, trailing only Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin (8.0).
Mercilus has started just two games this season, filling in for the injured Reed in the last two weeks. The first-round draft pick (26th overall) from Illinois has three sacks in those two starts, including the Texans' only sack of Tom Brady last Monday night at New England.
"I think he's progressing," Kubiak said. "A young player that the thing about him, he tends to make plays. He got thrown in the fire big-time. His progress has a lot to do with how we're going to go here toward the end of this thing."
After leading the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles last season at Illinois, Mercilus will look to add to his total today against Luck, who has been sacked 32 times, in the first-career start at Reliant Stadium for both rookies.