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NFL Preview - Houston (5-3) at Indianapolis (7-0)



By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - There will be no hats and shirts declaring that the Indianapolis Colts are AFC South champions on the premises at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.

Should they prevail over the second-place Houston Texans, the Colts will not have officially clinched anything. The operative word there is "officially."

A win for Indianapolis - which has never lost to the Texans at home in seven all-time meetings - would give the Colts a cavernous four-game lead in the division with eight contests left to play, and only seven remaining for Houston.

Given the way Jim Caldwell's undefeated squad has played thus far in 2009, the notion of the Colts losing their grip on an advantage so large is far-fetched at best.

Indy didn't play its best game against a pesky San Francisco 49ers team last Sunday, but still managed to escape with an 18-14 victory.

The Colts put up their fewest points since Week 1 in the triumph, and had consistent trouble finishing off drives. Four Matt Stover field goals accounted for all of Indianapolis' points over the game's first three quarters, and Caldwell's crew found itself behind, 14-12, as the final frame began.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, a 22-yard trick-play touchdown pass from Joseph Addai to Reggie Wayne put Indianapolis ahead to stay, as an underrated defense flexed its muscles and finished off a second-half shutout.

Quarterback Peyton Manning was 31-of-48 for 347 yards in the win, the sixth time in seven outings he has gone over 300 yards, but did not throw a touchdown pass.

The Texans also had a happy Week 8 result, though following a theme that has been echoed throughout their eight-year history, they refused to do things the easy way.

On a day in which they gutted out a 31-10 road victory over a hard-nosed Buffalo Bills team to finish the first half of a season above .500 for the first time ever, the Texans (5-3) had their enthusiasm tempered by a couple of disconcerting elements.

The first was the continued plague befalling Steve Slaton. The Texans had made Slaton's fumbling issues a point of emphasis for several weeks, after the second-year back out of West Virginia coughed the ball up six times (four lost) during the team's first seven contests.

But, despite hope that Slaton was finally ready to put those problems behind him, the running back was stripped by linebacker Paul Posluzsny on just his third touch of the game, and was benched for the remainder of the contest.

Backup Ryan Moats carried the load the rest of the day, making the most of his opportunity with 23 carries for 126 yards and three touchdowns.

And though the Texans didn't know it yet, the worst had already come, even before Slaton put the ball on the ground.

Following the team's second possession of the game, tight end Owen Daniels had left the contest after catching his foot in the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf. On Monday, the grim news was confirmed that the Pro Bowl tight end had suffered a torn right ACL, and would be lost for the season.

Daniels entered Week 8 Buffalo leading all NFL tight ends in receiving yards, and was second at his position in receptions and touchdowns.

Minus their star tight end, the Texans will be looking to build on their first three-game win streak of the year on Sunday. Houston is 10-4 in its last 14 games dating back to last season.

SERIES HISTORY

The Colts are 13-1 all-time against the Texans, with the only loss a 27-24 result at Reliant Stadium in 2006. Last season, Indianapolis won a pair of tight contests, a 31-27 final at Reliant Stadium in Week 5 and a 33-27 thriller at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 11. In the former game, Indianapolis became the first team in NFL history to erase a 17-point deficit with less than four minutes to play to win in regulation. As mentioned, the Texans are 0-7 all-time in Indianapolis.

Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is 1-5 against the Colts in his career, while Indy's Caldwell will be meeting bout Kubiak and Houston for the first time as a head coach.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL

The Texans have made most of their money this season passing the football, ranking third in NFL passing offense (282 yards per game) as Week 9 begins, and quarterback Matt Schaub (2342 passing yards, 16 TD, 7 INT) and wideout Andre Johnson (44 receptions, 4 TD) are the league leaders in touchdown tosses and receiving yards, respectively. But the absence of Daniels figures to have a negative affect on the aerial attack, unless replacements Joel Dreessen (25 career receptions) and fourth-round project Anthony Hill (North Carolina State) can replicate his production. More likely to occur is increased targets thrown in the direction of wideouts Kevin Walter (22 receptions, 1 TD) and Jacoby Jones (9 receptions, 3 TD). In the backfield, it would seem that the career backup Moats (182 rushing yards, 3 TD) merits a start after his big day against the Bills, though Kubiak has made no secret of the fact that he would like to get Slaton (342 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 5 TD) back involved as well. The Texans o-line has allowed a reasonable 13 sacks of the slow-footed Schaub through eight weeks, including two against Buffalo last Sunday.

Though Manning and the Colts offense will always get more of the attention, there should be no overlooking the work of an Indianapolis defense that currently ranks No. 1 in NFL scoring defense (13 points per game), touchdowns allowed (8), and touchdown passes allowed (3). That said, Indy is dealing with some injury issues as Week 9 begins. Starting outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (biceps) was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this week, meaning the less experienced Philip Wheeler (10 tackles, 1 sack) will have to step into replace him. Also, oft-injured safety Bob Sanders (3 tackles, 1 INT), who recently returned to the field from a knee injury, missed practice time this week with an elbow problem. The strength of the Colts defense has been a pass rush that has managed 20 sacks on the year, more than half of which have gone to usual suspects Dwight Freeney (15 tackles, 8 sacks) and Robert Mathis (23 tackles, 6 sacks). Freeney and Mathis both had take-downs of the 49ers' Alex Smith last Sunday. Young corners Jerraud Powers (29 tackles) and Jacob Lacey (26 tackles, 1 INT), who have played well thus far in '09, will see a step-up in class with Johnson coming to town this week and will need support from Sanders (if he plays), and safeties Antoine Bethea (49 tackles, 2 INT) and Melvin Bullitt (28 tackles). The Colts are just 17th in the league against the run (112 yards per game), with linebackers Clint Session (42 tackles) and Gary Brackett (30 tackles) ranking among the team's top tacklers, and the club allowed a 64-yard touchdown run to San Francisco's Frank Gore last Sunday.

WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL

Thanks in large part to the work of Manning (2227 passing yards, 15 TD, 4 INT), who is having another MVP-caliber season, the Colts enter Week 9 leading the league in passing offense (316.3 yards per game), completion percentage (71.2), third-down efficiency (51.1), sacks allowed (5), and are tied for the league lead in touchdown passes (16). Wideouts Reggie Wayne (51 receptions, 6 TD), Austin Collie (30 receptions, 4 TD), and tight end Dallas Clark (46 receptions, 3 TD) have been Manning's top targets, and it was Wayne who excelled with 12 catches for 147 yards and the team's lone touchdown of the game last Sunday. Clark pitched in with eight catches for 99 yards, and the emerging rookie Collie logged six grabs for 66 yards. The Indianapolis running game has not been a consistent threat, ranking 30th in NFL rushing offense (87.3 yards per game) and 26th in yards per carry (3.7), though both Addai (336 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 5 TD) and rookie Donald Brown (212 rushing yards, 2 TD) have had their moments. Brown did not play due to a shoulder injury last week, but is expected back in the lineup on Sunday.

The key for Houston in Sunday's game will be their ability to defend the Colts passing attack, a directive that would not seem to play to the team's strengths. The Texans are a middle-of-the-pack 14th in the NFL against the pass (213.2 yards per game), and the secondary has just four interceptions through its first eight games. Pressure will be on cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (29 tackles) and Jacques Reeves (11 tackles, 1 INT) to handle the receivers, with safeties Bernard Pollard (30 tackles), Glover Quin (32 tackles), and Eugene Wilson (20 tackles, 2 INT) counted on as well. The pass rush, led by Mario Williams (24 tackles, 3 sacks), does not figure to be very effective against Manning. The Texans have had their struggles against the run too, ranking near the bottom of the league with 4.7 yards per carry allowed, but held Bills running backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson to a combined 71 yards on 17 carries last week. Rookie linebacker Brian Cushing (66 tackles, 2 INT, 1.5 sacks) had a big game with 10 tackles, a sack, and an interception on the day, while fellow LB DeMeco Ryans (59 tackles) was tied for the team lead with five solo stops. Tackles Amobi Okoye (22 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Jeff Zgonina (16 tackles, 2 sacks) have been solid in the trenches.

FANTASY FOCUS

Though Schaub did not have a touchdown pass against the Bills last week, his overall productivity this year makes him a must-start, even against a Colts team that has not given up a ton of points. The uber-talented Andre Johnson must be in every fantasy lineup as well. With the running back position in a state of uncertainty and the Daniels injury altering the distribution of passes, going with any other Houston player is a risky venture.

On the other side, this is a week like most others, meaning you should start every member of the Colts passing game. In addition to being a real-life MVP candidate, Manning has been as close to a sure thing as there has been in fantasy football, and Wayne, Clark, Collie, and to an extent Pierre Garcon have all been credible options. Addai hasn't run wild this year, but gets enough touches to merit a start. Kicker Matt Stover will get his opportunities, but the Colts defense doesn't consistently make enough big plays to be called a must-start.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Texans' ascendance from an also-ran to what looks like an AFC playoff contender is all very touching, but frankly, Houston still matches up horribly with Indianapolis. Houston isn't a candidate to get much pressure on Manning, meaning it will be up to one of the league's weakest secondaries to keep the quarterback and his bevy of passing options in check. Don't count on Manning losing that battle. On the other side of the ball, Schaub will have his moments, but without the reliable Daniels and with the team's running back situation in flux, there's little chance of Houston matching Indianapolis score-for-score.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 38, Texans 20

11/05 17:04:39 ET