INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Thursday night meeting with the Houston Texans in NRG Stadium.
Kickoff: 8:20 p.m.
AFC South on the line
We’re talking about immediate control of the division, but the rematch carries long-term ramifications. Each team is 6-4, but the Colts are the No. 4 seed on the strength of their 30-23 win over Houston in mid-October. A season sweep gives them a stranglehold: essentially a two-game lead with five to play. If the Texans earn the split, they’re suddenly in control. Houston would have just a one-game lead in the AFC South race and face 9-1 New England Dec. 1. However, pertinent tiebreakers currently favor the Texans if there’s a tie atop the division when the dust settles. That would be common games and conference record.
The bottom line? If the Colts are going to win the AFC South for the first time since 2014, a fourth consecutive win in Houston is the clearest path.
No Mack. No problem?
No one should question Frank Reich’s commitment to his running game. His goal has been a top-five attack, and the Colts currently are sitting at No. 4 (141.1 yards per game). But that’s been accomplished with Marlon Mack carrying the bulk of the load (862 yards, fifth in the NFL). Trouble is, he’ll miss the Houston game and probably a couple more after fracturing his right hand in the third quarter of the Jacksonville game.
The Colts are 1-5 when Mack’s been out with an injury, and the running game has suffered. It’s averaged 120.3 yards per game with him, 76.3 without him.
Until he returns, it’s up to Jonathan Williams, Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines to pick up the slack. Williams is coming off the best game of his 17-game career: 116 yards on 13 carries against the Jaguars. Wilkins is back after missing last week with an ankle injury, and he’s averaged 5.8 yards on 87 career carries.
Reich has the utmost confidence in his running backs room. But until Mack is back, the offensive line must perform at a high level. A great offensive line can turn a mid-level back into much more than that.
Houston’s defense limited the Colts to 62 rushing yards and Mack to 44 in mid-October, but has been vulnerable most of the season. It ranks 13th in yards per game allowed (102) and 24th in yards per attempt (4.7).
The T.Y. Effect
All signs point toward T.Y. Hilton returning after missing the last three games with a calf injury. He’s listed questionable on the injury report, but also was listed as having been a full participant in the Wednesday walk-thru. That would represent Hilton’s first “practice’’ since he injured the calf Oct. 30.
“I don’t need practice,’’ he said Tuesday. “It’s just how my body feels. If I feel good and all the boxes are checked, then I go.’’
Hilton has routinely exploited Houston’s defense and considers NRG Stadium his second home. He’s averaged a shade over 100 yards in 16 meetings with the Texans, and three of his top four career games, including the top two, have occurred in Houston.
While the importance of Hilton’s contributions can’t be overstated, neither can his sheer presence. Simply, he demands attention, which opens things up for others. In the Colts’ 30-23 win in Indy Oct. 20, Jacoby Brissett authored the best game of his career: 26-of-39, 326 yards, four TDs, a 126.7 rating. Hilton finished with six catches, 74 yards and one TD, but it was a shared experience. Zach Pascal had six catches, 106 yards and 2 TDs and tight Eric Ebron four catches, 70 yards and one TD.
Houston’s defense has been nothing special and is heading into its third game without J.J. Watt (on IR with a torn pectoral muscle). It’s 29th against the pass (272.4) and has generated just 22 sacks, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. The Texans also are dealing with injuries in the secondary: safety Justin Reid suffered a concussion at Baltimore, while cornerback Bradley Roby has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury. Roby might be a game-time decision.
Watt was a terror in the first meeting with three tackles and six QB hits.
D on display
Reich’s specialty is offense, but he knows good defense when he sees it. And he’s seeing in with his Colts.
“Our defense right now is legit,’’ he said. “I mean, we’re in my mind one of the best defenses in the league.’’
Coordinator Matt Eberflus’ group ranks 11th in yards, 9th against the run and 15th in scoring and has greatly elevated its game over the last month. Trouble is, the defense hasn’t faced a quarterback the caliber of Deshaun Watson since, well, since it faced Deshaun Watson Oct. 20. He passed for 308 yards and one TD in the loss in Indy, but the Colts got to him for three sacks and interceptions from Pierre Desir and Darius Leonard. He did manage to get loose three times for 32 rushing yards.
Watson is capable of taking over a game, and he’s got plenty of help with All-World wideout DeAndre Hopkins, running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, and tight end Darren Fells.
The Colts will be without rookie safety Khari Willis (concussion) and backup rookie corner Shak Taylor (ankle) – rookie corner Rock Ya-Sin is questionable with an ankle injury – but Desir returns after missing four games with a hamstring issue.
And the winner is: Colts 23 – Texans 20
We’ve gone back and forth on this one. The absence of Mack bothers us, but that should be offset by the return of Hilton. The Texans have yet to come up with an answer for T.Y., and he should be super amped to contribute after missing the last three games. We’re expecting Brissett to remain efficient and the defense take another authoritative step forward. As we mentioned earlier, the winner has the inside track to winning the division.
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