Predicting NFL games, especially in the playoffs, often ends up being a self-indictment of ignorance.
As much as the media likes to suggest that we’re in the know, we don’t really know what’s going to happen when the Indianapolis Colts (10-6) visit the Houston Texans (11-5) in Saturday afternoon’s AFC Wild Card Playoff game at NRG Stadium in the Lone Star State.
But fans are always curious what we’re thinking, so it’s time once again to stick a neck out and try not to end up being an idiot.
If the Colts are going to survive and advance, the guy I’m keeping an eye on the most will be Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Granted, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the most important player, but he’s had two of the best games of his NFL career this season against the Texans and the hunch is he’s going to play well again this time.
The unknown is Hilton, who has had some of the best games of his career against the Texans, but has practiced just twice in the last month due to a sore ankle. No NFL wide receiver has been hotter since Week 8 than Hilton, who had 951 receiving yards in that stretch.
Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich admitted on Thursday that if this were the regular season, Hilton would be rested.
“I think there’s definitely one or two of these weeks that we would have probably put T.Y. down if it wasn’t at the end of the year like it is and the magnitude of these games, just to kind of let him recover and get back to full speed, definitely,” Reich said.
As T.Y. has made clear, there’s no way in hell he’s going to miss this game, especially in Houston, which he affectionately referred to as his “second home.”
The Colts can win without Hilton. Luck has thrown TD passes to 13 different wide receivers. But if T.Y. is making big plays again, that improves their chances dramatically.
Remember when the Colts needed a play on fourth down in their own territory in the final minute of overtime in September’s home game against the Texans? Hilton is the guy they look to in that situation, but he was sidelined by another injury. Luck’s pass fell incomplete, the gamble failed, and the Texans won.
Reich, Luck and the Colts will count on No. 13 to be there when needed.
“I have said this before, I am not measuring that every day with him,” Reich said of Hilton’s pain threshold. “I trust him. I’m assuming it’s about the same. I don’t know how it could be any different. We are on a shorter week. I just think he does a great job of handling it every week.”
There are so many other factors to consider when sizing up this matchup. What next comes to mind is how a Colts offensive line that allowed a league-fewest 18 sacks will block one of the game’s greatest pass rushers in the Texans’ J.J. Watt. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has had 12 sacks in 12 career games against the Colts. No. 99 is a concern on every play.
How a Colts defense led by NFL leading tackler Darius Leonard shadows scrambling Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is also another key. Watson extends plays with his legs, as evidenced by his 551 yards rushing and five TDs this season. Leonard, the intense rookie known as “The Maniac,” can’t be the only guy entrusted with keeping Watson “in the well,” as Reich likes to say. It will require a team effort.
But I’ll stick with keeping the closest eye on Hilton. Big-time players make the most important plays when the spotlight is the brightest. T.Y. has always been known for that. Too many times, we’ve seen him celebrate scores with his “T.Y.” hands gesture that says “Thank you.”
Oddsmakers have installed the Colts as two-point road underdogs, which means because the Texans are at home that this game is basically a toss-up. When in doubt, go with the team that has won nine of 10 to earn this playoff shot.
PREDICTION: Colts 27, Texans 24.