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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (10-0) at Houston (5-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Two missed field goals by Houston Texans kicker Kris Brown over his team's last two games have helped prevent the eighth-year franchise from taking a meaningful step forward in the playoff race.
On Sunday, when Houston seeks to end its recent run of frustration by facing the Indianapolis Colts for the second time in four weeks, the Texans will try to take their fate out of Brown's hands.
Brown, who had carved out a reputation as an ultra-reliable veteran, including seven-plus years of service with the Texans since the franchise first took the field in 2002, has been fitted for a pair of goat horns as Houston has dropped from 5-3 to 5-5.
In a 20-17 loss to the Colts in Week 9, Brown missed a 42-yard field goal as time expired, preventing Houston from forcing overtime and dropping the team to 0-8 all-time in Indianapolis.
Then, in a critical matchup with another division rival, the Tennessee Titans, this past Monday, Brown found himself in a near-identical situation, this time watching as his 49-yard try sailed wide left in the final minute of another 20-17 defeat.
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak publicly supported Brown this week, but it's safe to say that the kicker's next big miss in a critical situation could prompt his exit out of town.
Another loss for Houston, which is attempting to finish with a winning record and make the postseason for the first time in its history, could prove fatal to the team's playoff prospects. The Texans enter Week 12 in a glut of five- and six-win AFC wild card contenders, and with three of its final five games on the road, as well as a season finale with the Patriots on the horizon, the team's margin for error is slim.
The same cannot be said for the Colts, who will wrap up the AFC South title with a win and a Jacksonville Jaguars loss at San Francisco on Sunday. Indianapolis moved to 10-0 for the first time since 2005 by outlasting the Baltimore Ravens, 17-15, on the road last week.
A 299-yard passing day from Peyton Manning and a smattering of key defensive plays, most notably an interception by linebacker Gary Brackett that helped snuff out a deep Ravens drive in the final minutes, helped Indy polish off its 19th consecutive regular season win dating back to last season.
The 19-game run is the second-longest in NFL history, behind only the 21 consecutive regular season contests won by the New England Patriots from 2006-08.
The Colts are 14-1 all-time against the Texans, with the only loss a 27-24 result at Reliant Stadium in 2006. Indianapolis extended its winning streak in the series to five games with a 20-17 home win over Houston in Week 9. The Colts were 31-27 winners at Reliant Stadium last season, becoming the first team in NFL history to erase a 17-point deficit with less than four minutes to play to win in regulation.
Kubiak is 1-6 against the Colts in his career, while Indy's Jim Caldwell is 1-0 against both Kubiak and Houston as a head coach.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Seeking to continue his MVP-worthy 2009 performance on Sunday will be Manning (21 TD, 9 INT), who apart from two uncharacteristic interceptions in Baltimore last week was a crisp 22-of-29 for 299 yards and a touchdown. In addition to NFL receiving yards leader Reggie Wayne (76 receptions, 8 TD), who continued a certain Pro Bowl season with seven catches for 89 yards, Manning leaned heavily on second-year wideout Pierre Garcon (32 receptions, 3 TD) and formerly unknown tight end Tom Santi. Garcon caught six balls for 108 yards in the first 100- yard outing of his career, while the second-year-man Santi - capitalizing on the Ravens' preoccupation with Dallas Clark (65 receptions, 4 TD) - made his first six catches of the year count for 80 yards as the team used two-tight end sets on multiple occasions. Clark's only grab of the game was a three-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, and rookie Austin Collie (39 receptions, 4 TD) also had a quiet day with one reception for 12 yards. Running back Joseph Addai (514 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 10 TD) added value with 19 carries for 74 yards and a touchdown, the sixth time in the last seven games he has scored. Manning leads the NFL in passing yards (3171), and Indianapolis is No. 1 in the league in passing offense (313.5 yards per game), completion percentage (69.7), and third-down conversion percentage (50.4).
Clearly, Houston will be paying a great deal of attention to Clark this week, after the tight end burned the Texans for a whopping 14 receptions and 119 yards back in Week 9. Safety Bernard Pollard (50 tackles, 2 INT), who had two interceptions of Manning in that game, could be the man assigned to Clark. As for Wayne and Garcon, who were also productive in the first meeting with the Texans, cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (37 tackles) and Glover Quin (42 tackles) will have to be on their respective games for a Houston team that is 16th in the NFL against the pass (212.8 yards per game). The Texans pass rush has been disappointing all season, coming up with just 13 sacks all year, but ends Mario Williams (29 tackles, 4 sacks) and Antonio Smith (20 tackles, 2 sacks) both had sacks of Manning in Week 9. The Texans are just 22nd in the league against the run (120.6 yards per game), and come off a week in which they had major trouble with Titans star running back Chris Johnson. Johnson piled up 151 yards on 29 carries against Houston, and a linebacking group led by rookie phenom Brian Cushing (88 tackles, 2 INT, 1.5 sacks) and DeMeco Ryans (74 tackles) will be seeking improvement against Addai on Sunday. Cushing had a team-high 10 tackles against the Titans, and posted 12 stops versus the Colts last time out.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
From a standpoint of yardage, the Texans have been productive offensively during their two-game losing streak, as quarterback Matt Schaub (2958 passing yards, 19 TD, 9 INT) has posted back-to-back 300-yard games to give him six such performances on the year. But Houston has cashed in for just four touchdowns over its past two games, and red-zone efficiency will be a particular directive for Kubiak's club on Sunday. The primary weapon in the team's vertical attack has been wideout Andre Johnson (58 receptions, 5 TD), who had 10 catches for 103 yards against the Colts in Week 9 and followed up with 78 yards and a touchdown against the Titans on Monday. With Tennessee shading Johnson, wideout David Anderson (23 receptions) and running back Steve Slaton (380 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 7 TD) each had five catches as well. Slaton, who is nominally back in the starting lineup but had only five carries against the Titans, scored a touchdown in the game on a three-yard shovel pass from Schaub. Ex-Titan Chris Brown (178 rushing yards, 1 TD) was a bigger part of the game plan on Monday, carrying 11 times for 36 yards against his former team. The Texans are last in the league in yards per carry (3.3) as Week 12 begins.
Though few have talked about them as one of the dominant defenses in the NFL , the Colts head to Houston leading the NFL in scoring defense (15.7 points per game), touchdowns allowed (14), and are tied for the league lead in passing touchdowns allowed (7). The Brackett interception last week was emblematic of the timely plays Indianapolis has made on defense all year, and the pass rush led by Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (34 tackles, 8.5 sacks) has aided in the development of a young secondary featuring rookies Jerraud Powers (50 tackles, 1 INT) and Jacob Lacey (49 tackles, 1 INT) at the corners. The Colts did not have a sack of the Ravens' Joe Flacco last week, but Freeney and Mathis combined for two sacks of Schaub in Week 9. Powers and Lacey combined for 19 tackles in that game, with Powers notching an interception of Schaub as well. Brackett (57 tackles, 1 INT) and fellow LB Clint Session (72 tackles, 1 INT) have led the run-stopping effort this season, while safeties Melvin Bullitt (47 tackles) and Antoine Bethea (68 tackles, 3 INT) have helped out against both the run and pass. Bullitt and Bethea combined for 16 stops against the Texans in Week 9, and Bethea forced a fumble from running back Ryan Moats in the win.
Manning has been the most bankable quarterback in fantasy football this season, slightly ahead of Drew Brees, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady, thanks to his every- week consistency. Wayne and Clark have also had big years, and contributions from the likes of Garcon and Collie have made them worthy fantasy plays as well. Indianapolis is not viewed as much of a running team, but Addai gets enough red-zone chances to make him a must-play. The rock-solid Matt Stover is a perfect 7-of-7 on field goals this season and is well worthy of a start, though the Colts defense probably doesn't make enough "splash" plays to make them an optimum start.
On the Houston side, Johnson is a fantasy stud, and it's difficult to leave Schaub on the bench, especially when he's going up against a young secondary. The team's rotation of running backs is a problem for fantasy owners, but Slaton has scored touchdowns in each of the last two weeks and probably merits a start until further notice. Otherwise, no good Houston options here.
The Colts are clearly a better team than the Texans, and if these two teams were to meet in a truly meaningful matchup for both, such as in the postseason, you could count on Peyton Manning to wipe them off the field. But in these circumstances, in which the Texans are desperate and the Colts are well within their rights to be in full-coast mode, Houston has a slight advantage. Manning will still give the Texans defense fits, and the Texans will fail to finish off drives against an underrated Colts defense, but Houston will make enough big plays to send Indy to its first loss, and to keep Kubiak's team in the postseason chase.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 20, Colts 17
11/25 16:42:07 ET
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