NFL Preview - Houston (10-4) at Indianapolis (1-13)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the Indianapolis Colts were at long last able to get over the hump this past weekend, the Houston Texans and their rookie fill-in quarterback encountered their first bump in the road in quite some time.
The AFC South champion Texans will try to bounce back as they resume their quest for a potential opening-round playoff bye in Thursday's clash with the bottom-feeding Colts, who'll be seeking to build off their initial victory without Peyton Manning under center in 14 seasons.
Though Houston has already wrapped up its first-ever AFC South title, ending the once-mighty Colts' normal stranglehold on the division in the process, the postseason newcomers are still in a battle for the right to skip the Wild Card Round in the upcoming playoffs by seizing one of the conference's top two seeds. The Texans lost some ground in the chase, however, with last Sunday's 28-13 home defeat to upstart Carolina that also ended the team's franchise- record seven-game winning streak.
As a result, Houston enters the season's final two weeks tied with Baltimore for second place in the AFC, but sit behind the Ravens in the pecking order because of a head-to-head loss back in October. Both clubs trail New England by one game in the overall standings.
The absence of a few key cogs finally caught up to the Texans in their matchup with the Panthers. Young signal-caller T.J. Yates, promoted from third string on the depth chart into a coerced starter's role due to injuries to veterans Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, threw a pair of costly interceptions in his third career NFL start, while Houston's usually-sturdy defense surrendered a season- high 166 rushing yards with esteemed coordinator Wade Phillips missing the game due to medical reasons.
"Something happened, because we didn't have our concentration and weren't as sharp as we had been throughout the course of that run and the way we were playing, even though we did show some signs of exactly what we did [last week] in Cincinnati," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak while referring to his club's 20-19 last-second triumph over the Bengals in Week 14. "We've just got to get our energy back, keep going and got to figure out how well we can be playing here in a couple weeks, and we know last week wasn't good enough."
As the Texans enter Lucas Oil Stadium on a bit of a down note, the Colts enter this midweek tilt riding a rare high after breaking through for a long-awaited victory No. 1 of a disastrous 2011 campaign. Indianapolis avoided the humiliating possibility of becoming only the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 in a season with last week's 27-13 decision over visiting Tennessee.
Running back Donald Brown led the way with a career-best 161 rushing yards on only 16 carries, nearly half of which came on a game-sealing 80-yard touchdown burst with 3:26 to go. Indianapolis' maligned defense also rose to the occasion by forcing three Titans' turnovers, including a interception by Jacob Lacey that the cornerback returned for a score in the third quarter.
"Anytime you get a win it's good," said Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. "The guys have been working hard, been doing things the right way and we haven't had a whole lot of guys complaining or pointing fingers. They've stayed together, they've fought together and it's always good to get a positive result.
The Colts prevailed despite just 82 passing yards from quarterback Dan Orlovsky, an ex-Texan who was making his third straight start as the latest to try to fill the sizeable void left by Manning's career-threatening neck procedure that's kept the four-time league MVP sidelined this entire season. Orlovsky had spent the previous two years with Houston, but was deemed expendable when the team selected Yates in the fifth round of this past April's draft.
Houston will be trying to make some additional history in what's already been a momentous season when it takes the field on Thursday. The Texans have never beaten the Colts in Indianapolis in nine previous tries, nor have they ever swept a home-and-home set from their division rival in the same year.
The Texans routed the Colts in Houston by a 34-7 count in the 2011 opener.
Indianapolis has dominated the all-time series between these teams, with Houston's above-mentioned Week 1 shellacking at Reliant Stadium only the Texans' third win in 19 lifetime meetings against the Colts. Houston has come out on top of two of their last three bouts with Indianapolis, however, having posted a 34-24 home verdict in the opening game of the 2010 season before the Colts exacted revenge via a 30-17 score at Lucas Oil Stadium later in the year.
Kubiak has gone 3-8 against the Colts during his six-year tenure with the Texans, while Caldwell owns a 3-2 mark against both Houston and Kubiak as a head coach.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
With Yates (770 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) still undergoing a crash course to the rigors of the NFL and star wide receiver Andre Johnson still on the mend from a strained hamstring, expect Houston to attack the Colts relentlessly with their excellent running back tandem of 2010 NFL rushing champion Arian Foster (1066 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 11 total TD) and Ben Tate (846 rushing yards, 3 TD) come Thursday. The latter racked up a career-high 116 rushing yards and a touchdown subbing for an injured Foster in the Texans' season- opening win over Indianapolis, while Foster is coming off an impressive 16- carry, 109-yard performance against Carolina. Houston sports one of the NFL's premier rushing offenses, ranking second in that category with an average of 151.8 yards per game on the ground. With Johnson set to miss a third straight week with his latest leg issue and sure-handed tight end Owen Daniels (53 receptions, 3 TD) a question mark due to a knee injury, wideout Kevin Walter (36 receptions, 3 TD) and backup tight end Joel Dreessen (21 receptions, 6 TD) may serve as this week's top targets for Yates, who played well in helping the Texans to victories in his first two starts before experiencing a hiccup against the Panthers, while Foster is an outstanding receiver of the backfield who gives the rookie a good outlet.
Stopping the run has been a season-long problem for an undersized Indianapolis defense that's yielding 138.7 yards per game on the ground (138.7 ypg), but the group came up surprisingly stout in that area against the Titans. Tennessee speedster Chris Johnson was held to just 55 yards on 15 attempts by a swarming front seven led by always-active middle linebacker Pat Angerer (132 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and weakside starter Ernie Sims (50 tackles), with the pair combining for 27 tackles on the afternoon, and Angerer also snared one of the team's two interceptions of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the win. If the Colts are able to duplicate that effort against the Texans, who rushed for 167 yards in the teams' first meeting, they'll be better equipped to unleash their tremendous pass-rushing duo of ends Dwight Freeney (17 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (38 tackles, 6.5 sacks) in hopes of forcing Yates into a few hasty decisions. That would also help protect a shaky secondary that's been burned for nearly 250 passing yards per game (24th overall) and is currently starting a pair of raw rookies, cornerback Chris Rucker (29 tackles) and undrafted strong safety David Caldwell (61 tackles). The Colts also have just eight interceptions on the year, tied for third-fewest in the NFL.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
After years of terrorizing opponents with a lethal aerial assault expertly directed by the iconic Manning, the Colts have fielded one of the league's most anemic passing games in 2011 while auditioning three different quarterbacks in a fruitless attempt to replace the surefire Hall of Famer. Orlovsky (693 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) is the latest of the bunch and has managed to throw for a mere 218 yards over the past two games, though the 28-year-old journeyman has shown good decision-making by turning the ball over just once over that span. The offense did get a much-needed spark out of Brown (586 rushing yards, 5 TD, 12 receptions), however, with the former first-round pick slicing through the Titans for a career day while helping Indianapolis compile a season-best rushing yards. He and trusted veteran Joseph Addai (355 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) both figure to see plenty of touches this week in the Colts' revised game plan, though Orlovsky does have some quality wide receivers to work with in five-time Pro Bowl selection Reggie Wayne (59 receptions, 3 TD), playmaker Pierre Garcon (62 receptions, 6 TD) and slot specialist Austin Collie (42 receptions). Tight end Dallas Clark seems likely to sit out Thursday's tilt, however, with a neck injury that also kept him out of last Sunday's win.
Orlovsky will need to be up to the stern challenge he'll face from a high- caliber Houston stop unit that leads the NFL in pass efficiency defense and has limited foes to an average of 6.0 yards per attempt, the second-lowest number in the league, even though Phillips won't be calling the shots for a second straight week as he recovers from recent surgery. A solid secondary headlined by shutdown cornerback Johnathan Joseph (41 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) and strong safety Glover Quin (68 tackles, 9 PD) gets considerable support from the pass- rushing talents of outside linebackers Connor Barwin (43 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Brooks Reed (41 tackles, 6 sacks), who've accumulated 12 1/2 sacks between them over the last six games, while hard-working rookie J.J. Watt (50 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and fellow end Antonio Smith (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks) can get to the quarterback as well. The Texans weren't good against the run a week ago, struggling to contain Carolina's mobile young quarterback Cam Newton, but a crew anchored by standout inside linebackers Brian Cushing (98 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and DeMeco Ryans (55 tackles) is permitting just 96.8 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in the NFL.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. Neither team will be fielding its intended regular at the position, and both enter this game with some questions that still need to be answered from its replacement field general. It's up to Yates to prove he can shake off his first questionable outing since becoming a starter, while Orlovsky has to be competent and virtually mistake-free against a tough defense for the underdog Colts to have a reasonable chance.
Indianapolis' run defense. The Texans are going to ask Foster and Tate to carry the offense and ease the burden on Yates, and stand an excellent chance of winning if the two dangerous backs can run wild. The Colts would have a far better chance of pulling off the upset if they can keep them under wraps and allow Freeney and Mathis to give Houston's rookie quarterback an uncomfortable evening by applying consistent pressure.
Reggie Herring. The Texans' linebackers coach will be running the defense for a second week in a row with Phillips still out of action, and his debut in the coordinator's role delivered mixed results. The Colts rank 31st in the league in total offense and mustered a scant 236 total yards in their Week 1 loss to Houston, so if the Texans perform somewhere close to their usual standards they should be just fine.
While it's true that the Colts haven't been very competitive when going up against an upper-echelon opponent this season, there's reason to believe the front-runners for next year's No. 1 overall draft pick can give the injury- plagued Texans a run for their money. Houston's offense has hardly been a juggernaut in Yates' three starts, with the team having averaged less than 17 points during the 24-year-old's time at the controls, and Indianapolis has been respectable on the defensive end since firing coordinator Larry Coyer in late November and replacing him with linebackers coach Mike Murphy. That trend may continue for another week with the Texans still in the process of getting the offense in sync and the difference-making Johnson once again out of commission, but Houston's outstanding running game and top-notch defense should be enough to get the new AFC South kings back in the win column.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 17, Colts 13
12/20 17:44:26 ET