Game plan: Colts vs. Texans

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HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Matt Hasselbeck #8 of the Indianapolis Colts passes agains the Houston Texans in the third quarter on October 8, 2015 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 19, 2015) – Five areas of interest for the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday showdown with the Houston Texans in Lucas Oil Stadium (CBS4, 1 p.m.):

 

Win, or else: That’s the situation facing the Colts. And the Texans for that matter. In a season that has seen each deal with shoddy play and debilitating injuries – Andrew Luck, Anthony Castonzo, Ahmad Bradshaw, Mike Adams and others for the Colts; Arian Foster, Brian Hoyer and others for Houston – the primary objective remains very much within reach.

“You still have the opportunity to win the division,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “The easiest way to get in the tournament, get in the playoffs, is to win the division. So it’s a big game, yeah.’’

Whichever 6-7 team survives seizes control of the division and grabs the inside track to the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs. With a victory, the Colts would earn a fourth consecutive postseason bid by winning one of their final two games – next Sunday at Miami (5-8) or Jan. 3 against Tennessee (3-10).

A loss to Houston won’t eliminate the Colts, but make things extremely difficult.

 

0-for-Indy: Don’t believe the comments that came out of Houston as the week unfolded regarding the Texans’ inability to win in Indy. In case you’ve forgotten, they’re 0-13. And in 2011, a 1-13 Colts bunch led by Dan Orlovsky kept the streak intact with a 19-16 win over a Houston outfit that entered the game with a 10-4 record and was jockeying for playoff position.

“I don’t think about that one minute,’’ Texans’ second-year coach Bill O’Brien insisted.

OK, he’s only been involved with the most recent Houston road kill, a 17-10 decision 12 months ago.

Your thoughts, J.J. Watt?

“It’s a new year,’’ he said on Wednesday. “We are playing the 2015 Indianapolis Colts, not any other team, not any other year. That’s the past.’’

Fine. Blinders are understandable when what’s behind you is unsightly.

But earlier in the week, it was clear this isn’t just another game for Watt. Along with being 0-for-Indy, the Texans are 4-23 all-time against the Colts.

“I mean, it’s something we know,’’ he told the Houston media on Monday. “It’s part of our history. It’s something we need to change.’’

The Colts should be on high alert when it comes to extending a streak. When they traveled to Jacksonville last weekend, they took with them an NFL-record 16-game winning streak against AFC South competition and a six-game winning streak against the Jaguars. Each ended in embarrassing fashion.

 

More from Hasselbeck? Matt Hasselbeck will make his fifth consecutive start and seventh overall. But how effective can anyone expect a battered, 40-year-old quarterback to be after he admitted on Wednesday his rib injury makes it difficult for him to do heavy breathing and throw the football. Each, we’ll point out, is essential to what Hasselbeck does.

Pagano described Hasselbeck as “a tough S-O-you-know-what . . . a warrior.’’ No argument from this precinct.

But we suggest Pagano have Charlie Whitehurst warmed up and ready in the bullpen. Hasselbeck has been roughed up and knocked out of the last two losses at Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, and there’s only so much abuse any player can absorb, let alone the NFL’s oldest non-kicker. He used the last week to recover from his latest body trauma, but that could quickly be negated with a couple of early hits.

It’s fair to wonder how much more Hasselbeck has to give. While winning his first four starts, he completed 64.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 94.4 rating. The numbers and efficiency have plummeted the past two weeks: 55.7 completion percentage, one TD, two interceptions, a 69.1 rating. The offense has followed Hasselbeck’s decline. Against the Steelers and Jaguars, it managed one touchdown on nine red-zone trips and converted just 7-of-30 third-down situations.

 

Limit the playmakers: The NFL is all about determining which players are most capable of taking over a game, and not allowing them to do so. We’ll save the Colts’ coaching staff the trouble. Circle jersey numbers 10, 90 and 99. They belong to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, pass-rush linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and Watt, the all-world end.

Hopkins has succeeded Andre Johnson as Houston’s offensive centerpiece. He ranks tied for fourth in the league with 89 receptions, fourth with 1,221 yards and tied for fifth with 10 touchdowns. He did his part to keep the Colts from posting a 27-20 win at Houston in October with 11 catches and 169 yards. Look for Vontae Davis to draw primary coverage of Hopkins, but it will be a mistake not to provide safety help.

Watt and Clowney are bona fide game-wreckers.

Watt’s 13.5 sacks are tied for second-most in the league, and he’s in contention for a third Defensive Player of the Year award in four seasons. Don’t be fooled by the club he’s wearing on his right hand to protect a fracture, or the fact he was a non-factor in the first meeting (two assisted tackles, one QB hit).

Clowney is beginning to show why the Texans made him the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. He has 4.5 sacks on the season, including three in the last two games. Clowney likely will spend much of the day working against left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who’s back in the lineup after missing three games with a sprained right knee.

Shame on the Colts if they allow Hopkins, Watt or Clowney to dominate the game.

 

A game of 3s?: In a game that features a backup QB (Hasselbeck), perhaps his backup (Whitehurst) and a Texans’ QB who wasn’t in the NFL when the season started (Indy-born T.J. Yates), no one should be surprised if a kicking contest decides it. Points might be hard to come by.

That would pit the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri against Houston’s Nick Novak, and we’ll side with the NFL’s oldest player. Vinatieti, 42, has converted 20 straight field-goal attempts after opening the season 0-for-2. His streak includes three 50-plus-yarders and three others from at least 47.

“If there are times we’re not scoring as many points for one reason or another, it’s obvious it might come down to a field goal,’’ Vinatieri said. “I think I approach it the same every time, and that’s you need to be the deciding factor in this game. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not, but prepare yourself like it’s going to be on you.’’

 

Prediction: Colts 16, Texans 13.

 

 

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.