INDIANAPOLIS — They know their precarious position in the AFC standings and that the next challenge is arguably the most formidable on the road against the NFL’s hottest team.
But the Indianapolis Colts (6-6) were trying to stick to the weekly narrative that Sunday’s game against the AFC South Division-leading Houston Texans (9-3) at NRG Stadium is just like any other week.
Even if that’s not true.
The Texans have won nine consecutive games, starting with a 37-34 overtime win at Indianapolis on Sept. 30. They mathematically eliminate the Colts from division title contention with a win.
More than that, a disappointing 6-0 loss at Jacksonville on Sunday has the Colts on the outside looking in at the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, one game behind Baltimore and tied with three other teams at 6-6.
Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard disagreed on Wednesday with the assertion that this next game will be like a playoff game. Granted, he’s a rookie who hasn’t experienced the NFL playoffs.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re approaching this as any other week.”
But Colts veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who started six playoff games from 2012 to 2014, offered a differing perspective.
“They’re all playoff games,” Hilton said, "from here on out."
The Texans have one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses led by four-time, first-team All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. They’re third in scoring defense at just 19.6 points allowed.
The Colts had a five-game win streak snapped by the Jaguars’ stout defense, which shut out quarterback Andrew Luck for the first time in his 82-game, regular-season career.
“We will have our hands full,” Luck said of the Texans. “I know guys are excited to get back out on the practice field today. I know I certainly am, and figure out a way to get better as a team.”
Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich tried to downplay the significance of this next game, which was his message to the team, but there’s no way around the obvious that the importance of winning took on more significance after a shutout loss.
“We put ourselves not in must-win situations, we put ourselves in must-get-better situations,” Reich said. “That’s been our mantra the whole year and that’s not going to change. We are a process-oriented, people-oriented team. We focus on getting better every day. We know that’s what works, that’s what’s stood the test of time. That’s the best way to prepare for this week and that’s all that matters.”
Reich said he doesn’t buy into the notion that the Colts’ backs are against the wall.
“No, I don’t personally believe in that,” he said. “I understand it. It sounds sexy, it sounds ‘ooh’ and all that stuff, but what works is you got to get better. What we talk about it is you almost have to surrender to the outcome to focus on the process. A lot of times what happens when you get too focused on the outcome – there’s a lot of empirical evidence in a lot of different ways that says the best way to do it is focus one day at a time to get better.”
Aside from failing to score, Luck lamented how the Colts struggled in manageable third-down situations. One of the league’s best at third-down conversions, the Colts were five of 18 against the Jaguars, and also failed on three key fourth-and-one plays.
“Obviously we struggled and struggled a lot, but you learn from every game,” Luck said. “There is sort of the emotional part of a game and you go through that cycle – sort of directly (after) the game. But you wake up the next morning and you sort of put the emotions aside, the result aside and you look at the cycle of play.
“So whether it’s win, lose, big, little you learn. You learn from each play. So certainly there were learning moments in that game and more from the sort of negative maybe than of the positive. But I think once you’re watching it on film, it is like any other game.”
TV: CBS (Channel 4 in Indianapolis); Steamlive on CBS.com. Announcers Kevin Harlan (play-by-play), Rich Gannon (color analyst), Steve Tasker (sideline).
RADIO: WFNI (1070-AM ESPN The Fan, 107.5-FM locally) and WLHK (97.1 HANK FM locally). Announcers Matt Taylor (play-by-play), Jim Sorgi (color analyst), Caroline Cann (sideline reporter).
REFEREE: Bill Vinovich (NFL official since 2001, promoted to referee in 2004, returned after six-year hiatus in 2012, was referee for Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 1, 2015.).
SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Colts lead series 25-8. The Texans won 37-34 in overtime on Sept. 30 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Colts prevailed 20-14 in their last visit to NRG Stadium on Nov. 15, 2017. The Colts are 11-5 in that stadium. The Texans have won four of the last six in the series, including twice in overtime.
— Luck, who attended Stratford High School just west of Houston, said his grandparents as well as aunts and uncles still live down there. He recalled attending Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium, since renamed NRG Stadium. His current Colts kicker, Adam Vinatieri, made the game-winning field goal for New England. “Yeah, it’s always fun to go back to Houston,” Luck said. “Obviously I spent most of my formative years there and have really, really great memories. I remember going to Texans games. I remember my dad (Oliver) taking me to the Super Bowl to see Adam Vinatieri kick a game-winner when it was in what was known as Reliant (Stadium) back then. So (it’s) always fun.”
— Center Ryan Kelly (knee) is still considered day-to-day and missed his seventh consecutive practice on Wednesday, which suggests he will be sidelined for his third consecutive start. “He’s doing great, making progress,” Reich said. “Just still in that monitoring every day. Want to be smart, want to get him back as soon as we can, but we still want to be smart about it.” Evan Boehm has made the last two starts. When Kelly anchored the line, the Colts didn’t allow Luck to be sacked in five consecutive games and 239 pass attempts. Luck has been sacked four times in the past two games, including three at Jacksonville.
— NFL tackle leader Darius Leonard acknowledges shadowing shifty Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is a key. “He makes a lot of plays with his legs,” the rookie linebacker said of Watson. “He extends a lot of plays, so if we keep him in the well, I think we’ll be alright.” He added, “We want to try to make them one-dimensional and try to make Deshaun beat us with his arm.” Leonard’s 122 total tackles are 16 more than the league’s next player.
— Defensive tackle Denico Autry enjoyed a career-best three sacks and two forced fumbles on Sunday, but the fact that it came in a loss was disconcerting. “Yes, sir, it was a career day,” Autry said. “Yeah, it’s humbling, but you have those games. I’ll just try to go back to the drawing board and do it again.” Signed as a free agent to a three-year, $17.8-million contract in March, Autry has already set a new career season best with six sacks, which ties Leonard for the team lead. And that’s despite missing four games due to injuries.
— Texans All-Pro pass rusher J.J. Watt has one thing in common with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Neither have much to say about being considered front-runners for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Luck said last week after being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week that he doesn’t think much about awards and that any honor is positive because it suggests the team is doing well. Luck missed all of 2017 due to shoulder surgery. Watt was lost after five games to a left leg fracture. Watt was quite candid on a Wednesday conference call when asked about being mentioned with Luck for the award. “It doesn’t matter a whole lot to me,” Watt said. “There are a lot of deserving guys out there. It doesn’t really matter to me. I am just focused on winning games.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 95.8 — Average receiving yards for T.Y. Hilton in 13 games against Houston. He caught four passes for 115 yards but exited early with chest/hamstring injuries in the 37-34 home overtime loss to the Texans on Sept. 30. One of his best NFL games came in 2014 at Houston, when Hilton had nine receptions for 223 yards and one TD. The four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, who is averaging 108.5 yards receiving in his last four starts, has 67 career catches for 1,246 yards and nine TDs against Houston.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
— In nine career games against Houston, Luck has 21 TD passes with six INTs for a 90.5 rating.
— The loss of tight end Jack Doyle to a season-ending kidney injury two games ago might be more crucial than some realize. The Colts fell to 1-5 without Doyle in the lineup on Sunday. The 2017 Pro Bowl tight end was a valued blocker in addition to being one of Luck’s favorite pass targets.
— Tight end Eric Ebron tied his career high with 10 catches last week, when he amassed 81 yards. But what was missing from the previous game against the Jaguars were touchdowns. He caught two TD passes and ran for a score last time. In this game, he didn’t have a score and lost a fumble on a key fourth-and-one failure.
— Ebron’s 11 TD receptions are tied for second in the league, one behind Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown. If Ebron score another, he’ll set a new Colts single-season record for TD catches. He shares the mark with Dallas Clark (2007).
— Kicker Adam Vinatieri can make more history in this record-setting season with a field goal of 40 to 49 yards. His next would tie Gary Anderson (161) for most from that range in league history. Vinatieri, the NFL’s oldest player at 45, has already set NFL records in career field goals (576) and points (2,570) this season.
— Punter Rigoberto Sanchez is tied for third among regular punters in net average at 42.8 yards.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: RB Nyheim Hines. Although Marlon Mack is the starter, Hines continually gets his share of snaps because he’s so adept as a receiver out of the backfield. The rookie matched his career-best total of nine receptions in last week’s loss at Jacksonville. The previous time was against the Texans, when he caught nine passes for 63 yards and two TDs on Sept. 30. The Texans are 18th in pass defense compared to fifth in rushing defense, which suggests the Colts will stick to their season script and try to free up run lanes by throwing short passes. Hines is one of only two NFL rookies (Saquon Barkley) with at least 250 rushing yards (288) and 250 receiving yards (298).
GAME PLAN: It’s imperative for the Colts to shake off the ugly loss at Jacksonville and show they don’t have an offensive hangover from being blanked. That means a fast start, which will be a challenge against a Texans defense that’s No. 3 in fewest points allowed. Luck will have to connect with his receivers early, and because the Texans have such a formidable pass rush, that means getting rid of the football quickly. Houston will anticipate the short throws, too, and likely crowd the defensive box. So Luck’s quick decision-making will be put to the test. He needs to connect on a couple of throws down the field to loosen up that Texans secondary. While coach Frank Reich will want to have balance with a rushing attack, those yards will be scarce if Luck isn’t successful in the passing game. Luck competed 40 of 62 passes for 464 yards and four TDs in the previous loss to the Texans.
An improving, young Colts defense will have to shadow Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who in addition to completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,031 yards and 21 TDs is an elusive scrambler with 375 yards rushing (5.4 yards per carry) and two TDs. Pressure him early and he’ll look to run. Watson has taken 41 sacks, so a Colts pass rush that generated three sacks and seven quarterback hits at Jacksonville will need to get after the second-year pro. Problem is, the Texans don’t need much time for two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to get open. Hopkins had a season-high 10 catches for 169 yards and one TD in the previous game against the Colts. The Colts typically play a soft zone and try to keep pass catchers in front of them. They undoubtedly will bracket Hopkins with a safety cover over top and a cornerback underneath, although he’s still capable of getting open and making plays.
MATCHUPS: Colts RT Braden Smith vs. Texans DE J.J. Watt. The reliable rookie Smith faces his greatest pro challenge to date in lining up against one of the NFL’s most prolific pass rushers in Watt. The Texans’ two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has a team-high 11.5 sacks, including two sacks and two forced fumbles against the Colts last time. Watt has had at least two sacks in three of his past five games against the Colts. Smith, a second-round pick out of Auburn, didn’t start the previous game against the Texans. He’s started the past eight games and has made a successful adjustment to tackle after playing guard in college. But Watt, who has 87.5 career sacks in 100 career games, is a different animal.
Colts CB Kenny Moore II vs. Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins. While the Colts have shuffled their cornerbacks at times, Moore started on the right side last week, which means he would draw one of the NFL’s hottest receivers this week in Hopkins, whose 80 receptions are tied for 10th in the league and his 1,115 receiving yards are tied for sixth. Hopkins’ eight TDs are tied for eighth. Hopkins has the speed to beat cover guys deep and is so quick in his cuts that coverage backs off and allows him room to make plays underneath on sideline and crossing routes. The Colts try to keep all pass catchers in front of them, but with Hopkins, expect a constant double team, or at the very least, keep him guessing about what coverage he’s facing from one play to the next. Just putting Moore on a one-on-one island likely translates to Hopkins enjoying a monster game.