It would, and should, come down to this, really.
The 6-4 Indianapolis Colts.
The 6-4 Houston Texans.
It's not the penultimate game of the season, but it'll have that sort of feel on Thursday evening when the Colts come to town. This will be the third year in the past five when the Colts and Texans will have met in Week 12 or later tied atop the AFC South.
In 2015, both teams were 6-7 and met in Indianapolis where the Texans had never won... until that day. The Texans left Indy with a win, one of three down the stretch in December that led to the division title. In 2016, the Texans and Colts were 6-6 heading into a December matchup with the division on the line. The Texans won that one too and took home the division title that year as well. So, it's to be expected that these two organizations would tangle on the brink of December with the top of the division on the line.
Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett, 4-0 as a starting quarterback in his career vs. the Texans, returned back to the lineup last week against Jacksonville and it paid immediate dividends. The Colts beat the Jaguars 33-13, the first time all season that the Colts played a game with a margin of victory more than one score. Even in Week 7, the Colts and Texans played a nail-biter that went down to the final minute, but the Colts held serve and won 30-23. That win was the third in a row for the Colts over the Texans, two of which came here at NRG Stadium. In fact, the Texans have beaten the Colts just once at home (2016) since a win over Andrew Luck and the Colts in his rookie year in 2012. Here's hoping for that number to change to two on Thursday night.
So, um, yeah, there's a ton on the line in this one and that's the way it should be.
Without further ado, let's get to know the Indianapolis Colts... again.
2019 Schedule - Record 6-4
L, @ Los Angeles Chargers 30-24
W, @ Tennessee Titans 19-17
W, Atlanta Falcons 27-24
L, Oakland Raiders 31-24
W, @ Kansas City Chiefs 19-13
W, Houston Texans 30-23
W, Denver Broncos 15-13
L, @ Pittsburgh Steelers 26-24
L, Miami Dolphins 16-12
W, Jacksonville Jaguars 33-13
Colts offense (in 2019):
Rushing yards per game - 141.1 ypg (4th in the NFL)
Passing yards per game - 202.7 ypg (28th)
Total offense per game - 343.8 ypg (21st)
Turnovers lost - 15 (8 INT, 7 fumbles lost)
Projected Colts starting offense for Thursday night's game vs. Texans:
QB - Jacoby Brissett
RB - Jonathan Williams/Jordan Wilkins
WR - T.Y. Hilton (hasn't played in three weeks, I'm expecting to see him play/start)
WR - Zach Pascal
TE - Eric Ebron
TE - Jack Doyle
LT - Anthony Castonzo
LG - Quenton Nelson
C - Ryan Kelly
RG - Mark Glowinski
RT - Braden Smith
Other key offensive pieces:
WR - Chester Rogers
RB - Nyheim Hines
TE - Mo Alie-Cox
WR - Marcus Johnson
*All caps indicates a 2019 addition
Keys to stopping the Colts offense:
1. Tackling. I can't stress tackling enough in this one. I made it a key last week and that's why it's back this week because the Texans tackling technique was not excellent, to say the least.
2. When... not if... when T.Y. Hilton plays, the Texans secondary must keep Hilton in front. The Texans didn't fail in this regard in the first matchup this year, which makes it that much more important to keep Hilton in check.
3. Manage the pick/rub routes that man coverage will precipitate from the Colts offense. In Indianapolis, the Colts thrived with an incessant number of highly effective pick routes.
4. Attack offensive linemen in the run game and yield nothing for the Colts running game to exploit.
5. Who can win 1-on-1 vs. the Colts offensive line rushing the passer? The Texans put all kinds of pressure on Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew II in London, but didn't have much success at all getting after Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. That must happen early in this matchup.
6. See No. 1.
Colts defense (in 2019):
Rushing yards allowed per game - 96.8 ypg (9th in the NFL)
Passing yards allowed per game - 228.8 ypg (12th)
Total offense allowed per game - 325.6 ypg (11th)
Turnovers generated - 12 (7 INT, 5 fumble recoveries - Colts are -3 in TO margin)
Projected Colts starting defense for Thursday night's game vs. Texans:
DE - Jabaal Sheard
DT - Grover Stewart
DT - Denico Autry
DE - Justin Houston
LB - Darius Leonard
LB - Anthony Walker
Nickel - Kenny Moore
S - Malik Hooker
S - Clayton Geathers
CB - Pierre Desir (missed four games with injury)
CB - ROCK YA-SIN (rookie - left Jaguars matchup with an ankle injury)
Other key defensive pieces:
Nickel - Rolan Milligan
CB - Quincy Wilson
DT - Margus Hunt
LB - BOBBY OKEREKE (rookie)
LB - BEN BANOGU (rookie)
DE - Al-Quadin Muhammad
DL - Tyquan Lewis
S - George Odum
*All caps indicates a 2019 addition.
Keys to winning vs. the Colts defense:
1. Limit the Colts' defensive line penetration or the run game will go nowhere.
2. If the run game is slowed, how can the offense get Duke Johnson and/or Carlos Hyde involved in the passing game?
3. Five must protect against four. The offensive line must be tough in protection and handle the pass rush which will allow backs and tight ends out on pass routes. Rookie Tytus Howard will, presumably, face Justin Houston for the first time and that's not going to be easy. But, the rookie first rounder has won plenty of reps against the best in the league, so it's imperative that he have a clean sheet against the veteran star rusher.
4. Which receiver not named DeAndre Hopkins makes a significant impact on this game? Keke Coutee had 22 catches against the Colts in two games as a rookie last year. Kenny Stills had four massively important catches in the first matchup this year. They each took some heat off of Hop and the offense may need more of that this week.
5. Be quick but don't hurry. It's a John Wooden-ism. That was one of the legendary UCLA hoops coach's favorite sayings and it's apropos for any offense really. Reads, decisions, routes... you name it... all have to be decisive and quick, but the offense can't be in a hurry such that it makes silly mistakes that curtail good drives.