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NFL Preview - Houston (2-11) at Indianapolis (8-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not been a season to remember for the Houston Texans.
Riding the wave of consecutive AFC South Division championships and expected to compete for overall conference supremacy, the Texans appeared on course after beginning 2013 with consecutive victories at San Diego and home with Tennessee.
Since then, saying it's been nightmarish would be considered by some an understatement.
Houston is still searching for a third victory three months and 11 games later, and has changed its starting quarterback, lost a host of vital players to injury, seen its coach suffer a mini-stroke on the field during a primetime game and then fired that coach just weeks after his return.
In fact, Gary Kubiak's final game with the Texans came last week at Jacksonville, when the Texans dropped a 27-20 decision - their second to the Jaguars in three games - amid 14 penalties for a franchise-record 177 yards.
Taking over on an interim basis for this Sunday's visit to Indianapolis is veteran NFL coach Wade Phillips, who also handled matters following Kubiak's medical scare on Nov. 3.
"What's taken place with this organization is unacceptable," general manager Rick Smith said. "We've got three weeks of an evaluation process left and we've got to right the ship."
Front and center in that process will be the quarterback position, which is the responsibility of youngster Case Keenum, who was thrust into the starter's role in both the injury related absence and subsequent ineffectiveness of veteran starter Matt Schaub.
Keenum was benched by Kubiak in the third quarter last week and has thrown four interceptions and two touchdowns in his last four games, after beginning his tenure with 822 yards and no INTs in his initial three appearances.
He was 20-of-34 for 350 yards and three scores against the Colts in Week 9, the night Kubiak was stricken. That same game was the 2013 high watermark for All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson, who caught nine balls for 229 yards - the second-best total of his career.
He scored three times that night and has 46 catches for 722 yards and six TDs in his last five meetings with Indianapolis.
"A win for this team would be big," Phillips said. "The team's been uptight to me. All the pressure's been on them, they've put it on themselves and rightly so. Now we just have to go play."
In Indianapolis, the buzzword of late is consistency.
The Colts have alternated wins and losses for the last six weeks, including an ugly 42-28 loss last week at Cincinnati that dropped them from the third conference playoff position to the fourth.
They have clinched the AFC South title, however, and will spend the final three weeks hearing the not-so-unpleasant questions about whether it would be prudent to rest starters, etc.
When Tennessee lost at Denver last week, the division's fate was sealed.
"'We talked and said, 'They gave us 16 games, we're playing 16 games,'" Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "Right now, we've got a lot of things to get better at. We have to go back to work and play good football, consistent football for 60 minutes."
Indianapolis has been offensively challenged since losing veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne to a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 20. In the six full games since, they've not scored a first-half touchdowns and have been on the short end, 114-24, through the opening 12 quarters of those six games.
Defense has hardly been a respite. In fact, the last five games - three of them losses - have seen them dinged for an average of 32.2 points after they'd surrendered just 19.4 per game while breaking from the gate at 6-2.
They trail Denver, New England and Cincinnati in the playoff seeding race, but can fall no lower than No. 4 and are guaranteed at least one home playoff game. Unless a late-season surge occurs, though, that'll be the only guarantee for a team that has scored wins over San Francisco, Seattle and the Broncos.
"You never want to back door your way into it, but we won (the South)," linebacker Robert Mathis said. "We're in there, punched our ticket to the playoffs. We just have to hit the switch."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Return to November
As mentioned in some detail earlier, the Texans had some offensive success against the Colts in their first matchup in early November, which, unfortunately, would up being a side note after Kubiak's medical issues unfolded at halftime.
If it's to end the 11-game plunge, Houston will have to recoup at least some of the magic that allowed Keenum to pass for a career-high in yardage and post his high single-game number in QB rating as well - 123.4.
Home Sweet Dome
From the Peyton Manning years through the Curtis Painter disaster to their reemergence under Andrew Luck, the Colts have maintained a level of success against the Texans in Indianapolis that simply hasn't wavered.
They are 11-0 all-time against Houston at home, whether at their initial surroundings at the Hoosier/RCA Dome and into their subsequent new pad at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts, as Pagano has conceded lately, have been no one's facsimile of the 1985 Bears in recent weeks. The loss to Cincinnati was particularly ugly, and the inability to generate offense in the opening halves of games speaks at least in part to game-week preparation.
Still, they're facing an opponent that, while proud and in possession of some talent, has seemingly checked out now that the season is lost. A boost might have been in order with a new coach, but because Phillips has been there a while it's not as likely to result in a jolt. Instead, it's more of the same.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 24, Texans 14
12/12 12:41:50 ET
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