NFL Preview - Houston (7-6) at Indianapolis (9-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Just do what you always do.
That's probably the narrative that Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano is trying to sell to his team this week.
The Colts have owned the AFC South over the past two seasons and one more win against one of its inhabitants will lift Indianapolis to its second straight division crown.
Indy will search for its 12th straight win in the division Sunday against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans. A victory for the Colts clinches the South for Pagano's club while the Texans can close the gap to just one game with two to play if they get the triumph.
The Colts have generally owned Houston over the years, compiling a 21-4 all- time record against the Texans, including a 33-28 win in South Texas back on Oct. 9 when Andrew Luck threw for 370 yards and three TDs with T.Y. Hilton doing most of the damage, catching nine balls for a career-high 223 yards and a score.
Things have been even tougher over the years for the Texans in the Hoosier State where they've never won, compiling a dismal 0-12 mark in Indianapolis.
"We're well aware that we have not won there," Houston first-year coach Bill O'Brien said.
Any time the Colts and Texans tangle, the storyline is always going to focus on Luck and J.J. Watt, perhaps the top young offensive and defensive star in the NFL.
Luck, Indianapolis' star quarterback, has already thrown for 12,501 passing yards, the most ever by any player in his first three NFL seasons. Watt, the Texans' All-World defensive lineman, recorded three sacks last week in Jacksonville, become only the fifth player to amass at least 50 sacks (51) in his first four NFL seasons.
The Colts inched closer to the division crown with a heart-stopping 25-24 win in Cleveland last weekend when Luck's 1-yard touchdown pass to Hilton with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference.
Luck connected on 24-of-53 throws for 294 yards with a pair of interceptions and two scores, both to Hilton, who had 10 catches for 150 yards.
"We struggled early. Credit to them," said Luck. "Our tempo definitely helped. We were forced into a hurry-up tempo but I think that it was beneficial."
Houston, meanwhile, topped the Jags, 27-13, behind Watt and Arian Foster, who ran for 127 yards and a touchdown.
The Texans earned consecutive wins for the first time since starting the season 2-0 and are among five different AFC teams with a 7-6 record.
"The rest of the games are 'must wins.' There's no room for error," Foster said.
Ryan Fitzpatrick only threw 19 times and finished with 135 yards through the air but did run for a touchdown. One of his favorite targets, Andre Johnson, exited early in the second quarter with a concussion.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Indianapolis is very dynamic on offense, ranking tops in the NFL with 432.4 yards per game which is directly tied to Luck because the running game has been virtually non-existent since Ahmad Bradshaw was lost to injury.
Luck leads the league with 4,305 passing yards and is tied for the top spot with 36 TD throws and his top target, Hilton, is third in football with 1,295 receiving yards. However, the Colts can get bogged down and become one dimensional because Trent Richardson is what he is at this point and that is a back who averages only 3.3 yards per rush.
The hope is playing cleaner moving forward will turn Indy into a legitimate contender on the AFC side of things, along with the conferences's two 10-3 teams, New England and Denver.
The Colts turned it over a four times in Cleveland last weekend, two fumbles and two interceptions. Move back three weeks and Indianapolis has lost seven fumbles and had three Luck passes swiped, giving the team a dreadful minus-4 turnover ratio on the season, not a favorable trend especially with a turnover machine like Watt looming.
Part of the issue has been Luck trying to extend plays.
"There's a ton of plays over the course of the last two and three-quarter seasons that if (Luck) doesn't hang in there, if he doesn't do this, if he doesn't do that, if he doesn't take off and run and make three guys miss and get in the end zone to get our first touchdown," Pagano said. "So, there's a lot of great things that come out of trying to make plays, and he's a playmaker."
Watt returned a Luck fumble for a touchdown back in October and had two sacks in that game. Overall, Houston's defense is 25th in the NFL, allowing 373.0 ypg there is room to work as long as you can keep Watt from disrupting the game.
"We've got to get (the turnover issue) cleaned up," Pagano admitted. "You credit the opponent for stripping the ball and making plays, but it's still no excuse. ... We've got to get it cleaned up, period."
The Texans will try to buck history in Indianapolis with some injury issues. Johnson, who leads the team with 69 receptions for 737 yards, is iffy for the game with the concussion.
"It's not really about progress as much it's just day-to-day, taking the test and whatever that test is," O'Brien said when discussing Johnson. "We're really on top of that - our medical people. It's a very, very serious thing and my big thing there with him, I was just so worried about him when I saw him get hit like that. He's day-to-day."
Houston also shut down No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney for the season after the former South Carolina star underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee Tuesday.
Fitzpatrick threw for 358 yards and six TDs against Tennessee on Nov. 30, his first game back as a starter after Ryan Mallett went down with a torn pec. Things evened out a bit in Jacksonville, though, as the veteran played game manager as Foster, who is third in the AFC with 1.028 rushing yards, handled the offensive workload.
"Everybody knows that this is our shot," Fitzpatrick said. "You know what will happen if we lose a game, so every game is even more important than the last one."
Indianapolis has its flaws but everything is pointing toward the Colts in this one as the team searches for its ninth AFC South title in 13 years. Indy has won five of six at home and nine of 11 overall since an 0-2 start, and its 12-0 all-time home mark against the Texans isn't a trend, that's dominance.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 31, Texans 23
12/14 09:28:24 ET