The Texans (9-7) conclude the regular season on Saturday night at Indianapolis (9-7). The two squads are tied with the Jaguars in the AFC South, but Jacksonville has the division lead because of tiebreakers. The winner between Houston and the Colts secures a Wild Card playoff berth, while the loser's season is finished. Should the Jaguars fall to the Titans on Sunday, the Saturday night winner also claims the division title and will host a playoff game next weekend. The Colts won the first matchup in Week 2 at NRG Stadium. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at 7:15 p.m. inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
1) Stroud's just different – The two teams who squared off in Week 2 are drastically different than they are now. In particular, quarterback C.J. Stroud has steadily improved since then. But…Stroud played really well in that loss, and provided glimpses of what was to come throughout the rest of the 2023 campaign.
In the first go-round, he had seven completions of 20 yards or more, and finished with 384 yards and a passer rating of 103.5.
Fast forward to last weekend, and in Stroud's first game back from missing two contests due to a concussion, he guided the Texans to scoring drives on four of their first five possessions in the win over Tennessee.
Stroud got specific this week when he was asked in which way he's improved since the Colts last saw him.
"We were probably like plus-25, around the 25 or 30-yard line, and we called – not really a shot – but a 'four vertical' look, and they did a good job of carrying the safeties with the vertical seams," Stroud said. "And I was looking to the right and I went left, and I had 'Metch' [John Metchie III] in the flat, and I didn't take it and I tried to hit the check down. The check down was there, too. I didn't take it and I ran, I got hit and I threw it away. I took an extra hit for no reason, you know? So, in this past game, we had a shot play. They went Tampa 2, and I saw that it was taken away and I threw it to 'D.P.' [Dameon Pierce] and he made a good catch. And that's just growth right there knowing not to take hits when you don't need to, and just getting the ball out of your hand and helping your offensive line out. That's an example of me growing in that type of area."
Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley raved how Stroud's "playing above the level of being a rookie", and explained the challenges his crew will face.
"First of all, he plays with great poise," Bradley said. "He handles pressures, he handles looks, he handles different schemes very well. He gets the ball out timely. Does he hold it some? Yeah, because they take some shots, but it is timely when it is the quick game and when it's in their intermediate passes."
2) Run rejuvenation – Another difference from Week 2 to now: the Texans run game is better. In that loss, Houston averaged just 2 yards per carry, and through the first nine weeks of 2023, Houston struggled to run the ball effectively. Since Week 10, however, Devin Singletary has a trio of games with more than 100 yards rushing, and has gained 626 yards in that span. He's currently at 835 on the season.
"We believe he is playing at an exceptional level, and I don't think that's changed," Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said. "I think in the run game, the command he has right now of the scheme and of what we're trying to get done has manifested in how we're running the ball."
Singletary's success has been noticed by the Colts, too.
"Obviously, they've got a great back in Singletary: quick feet, downhill runner," Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Obviously, we know about Pierce as well. They've got a tandem of good backs."
3) Destructive d-line – The Colts have fielded many great teams over the years. But none have sacked the quarterback as many times as the 2023 bunch. They dropped Stroud for six sacks in Week 2, and in all, Indianapolis has a franchise-best 49 sacks this year.
Houston must protect Stroud, and the Texans know how stout the Colts are on the defensive front.
"They're really good," Texans center Michael Deiter said. "They get off the ball really well. They play hard, they play physical, and the 'backers are really good too. But it's something that we're prepared for. We just got to be on our details on our assignment and give us a chance."
Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans is impressed with Indianapolis, and described how tackles DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart are the engines of the defense.
"They're well coached – great scheme – and it starts with their defensive line," Ryans said. "Their two interior defensive linemen – they're the ones who make everything run and they're two really great players on the inside. We have our hands full with them."
4) Get to Gardner – The Texans are very familiar with Indianapolis quarterback Gardner Minshew. He came on in relief of Anthony Richardson and wound up playing 68 percent of the snaps in the Week 2 win at Houston.
Houston saw Minshew twice in 2019 and once more in 2020 when he was a Jaguar, but he's a much different quarterback now on a much better team.
Texans defensive end Jerry Hughes, who tallied a strip-sack on Sunday that saw defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins scoop up and return for a touchdown, detailed what Minshew's done so well this year.
"How calm he's been under pressure, getting the ball out of his hands," Hughes said. "He seems like he's using that play clock well to determine where he's getting the ball to, and then he does it very quick. He's very precise on who he's getting the ball to, how he gets it out."
5) Run defense – The Texans run defense has experienced a renaissance this year. After being a weakness since 2019, Houston is second-best in yards per carry allowed (3.3) and total yards gained (1,416).
Jonathan Taylor, meanwhile, has been injured for much of the year. He's back, however, and Zack Moss joins him. That duo's combined for over 1,300 yards rushing and 11 touchdown runs.
Limiting the Colts' effectiveness on the ground is important, because in the first game they raced out to a 14-0 lead early, and averaged 5.5 yards per carry on the afternoon.