What to watch for: Colts’ push for relevance starts Sunday at Houston

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts meeting with the Texans Sunday night in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m.

Broadcast: NBC


Do it in the division: The Colts have essentially eliminated any realistic hopes of an 11- or 12-win season by staggering through the early portion of the season with a 2-3 record. Forget chasing a wild-card berth. The only way to avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997-98 is to reclaim supremacy in the AFC South.

That heightens the importance of taking care of business the next two games: Sunday at Houston, Oct. 23 at Tennessee. Lose to the Texans and drop to 2-4, and the long road back becomes even steeper. But find a way to extract consecutive road victories and a division title is certainly doable. Indy’s divisional dominance – a league-record 16 straight wins – was unceremoniously snapped with the 51-16 meltdown at Jacksonville in December, then followed up with a 16-10 loss at home to the Texans that cost it the division title.

Despite the offseason hype and hope of resurgence, the AFC South remains the NFL’s meekest division. Even so, winning it brings a playoff berth and first-round home game.

Make Osweiler beat you: Few offseason moves drew more scrutiny than Houston luring Brock Osweiler away from Denver with a four-year, $72 million contract that included $37 million in guarantees. It was an exorbitant deal for a quarterback with seven career starts on his resume, but the Texans were desperate to solve their on-going QB issues.

The early returns are not encouraging. Osweiler ranks near the bottom of the league in passer rating (70.6), completion percentage (58.0) and yards per attempt (6.0). He has six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Part of the problem has been Osweiler’s protection. He’s been sacked 11 times and hit another 39 times. In last week’s blowout loss at Minnesota, he was sacked four times and pressured 15 times.

It’s way too early to declare Osweiler a bust, but it’s obvious he’s having problems settling in. The Texans have surrounded their new franchise QB with a solid supporting cast: wideouts DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Jaelen Strong; running back Lamar Miller. But they’ll only go as far as Osweiler takes them. In the lopsided road losses to the Patriots and Vikings, he completed 43-of-83 passes (51.8 percent) for 380 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Where’s the pressure? That brings us to one of the game’s hot-button issues. Will the Colts be able to force Osweiler to operate in a chaotic pocket? As we noted above, Houston’s pass protection has been spotty and Osweiler often has wilted under the pressure. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he has completed 33.3 percent of his passes and averaged 3.5 yards per attempt when pressured this season.

And now comes a Colts’ pass rush that has been tepid at best: seven sacks, including none from career sack leader Robert Mathis, who’s dealing with turf toe. We saw what happens when a QB is allowed to work in a clean pocket. Chicago’s Brian Hoyer, not to be confused with Tom Brady, had a career-high 397 yards, two touchdowns and 120.0 passer rating last week. The Colts failed to sack him and were credited with just five hits despite Hoyer attempting 43 passes.

“We need to generate a pass rush, that’s for sure,’’ coordinator Ted Monachino said. “How do we do that? That’s where we’re still working. That’s a work in progress. We are all frustrated with that.’’

Deal with the pressure: And that brings us to the other overriding issue – giving Andrew Luck enough time to do what he does. The Colts have allowed 20 sacks, a league high, and yielded another 40 hits. That cannot continue if they want Luck to finish the season.

“We just have to do a better job,’’ said coordinator Rob Chudzinski. “We know we have to do a better job protecting and we will.’’

Youth and the lack of continuity have contributed to the shoddy protection. Luck has played behind a different starting unit in each of the last four games, but the musical chairs might stop. It sounds as if the Colts are sticking with Denzelle Good at right guard and rookie Joe Haeg at right tackle.

“Nothing like continuity,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said.

Nothing like playing better, starting Sunday. The Texans have lost all-world end J.J. Watt for the season with a recurring back injury, but they still boast one of the NFL’s stiffest defenses: No. 5 in yards allowed, No. 1 against the pass and No. 3 in fewest first downs allows. The pass rush has generated 13 sacks behind end Jadeveon Clowney (2), outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (3.5) and inside ‘backer Benardick McKinney (2.0). Clowney, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, also leads the league with eight tackles for loss.

Luck has won five of six starts against the Texans – he missed both games last year with a lacerated kidney – and compiled solid numbers: 230.8 yards per game, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions, a 90.4 passer rating. Wideout T.Y. Hilton has averaged nearly six catches and 110 yards with six touchdowns in six games against Houston with Luck delivering the football.

But it all takes more time than the Colts have afforded Luck to this point.

And the winner is: Texans 27, Colts 23. We went back and forth on this one. Our gut says the Colts win because they have the much better QB. Our head and eyes tell us they’ll do enough to lose.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.