There are two teams tied at 6-4 atop the AFC South. Lucky for football fans, they’re set to play against each other on Thursday night, for all of us to see.
The Colts have done an incredible job of overcoming adversity this season, what with Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement before the year and T.Y. Hilton’s injury issues. The Texans have done everything they can to try to capitalize on what they clearly thought was an opportunity to take the division by storm, making several trades to improve the roster in the near-term at the expense of the future. And yet, here they sit, tied with the Colts (and technically behind them due to the tiebreaker) heading into Week 12.
Whoever wins this game gets a leg up in the race for a home playoff game in the first round. Whoever loses is suddenly on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Let’s break things down.
How to watch
When the Colts have the ball
The last time these two teams played, Jacoby Brissett had his best game of the season. Brissett completed 26 of 39 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns.
T.Y. Hilton played in that game, though, and caught six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. We still don’t know whether Hilton will be able to play on Thursday night. He’s been listed as questionable, getting in a full practice on Wednesday after sitting out entirely on Tuesday. This seems like a likely game-time decision, but a full practice session the day before the game is a pretty good sign. Brissett has formed a nice chemistry with Zach Pascal in Hilton’s absence, but Pascal has been inconsistent over the past several weeks. With Hilton on the field to tilt the coverage, he can get back to working in more space, and provide Brissett with another outlet.
The good news for Indianapolis is that the Texans’ secondary has somehow gotten even worse since the last time these two teams played, which should provide opportunities for Hilton and Pascal, as well as tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle. Ebron had a monster game and his highest snap rate of the season two weeks ago, but apparently played through an illness last week and could not follow it up with another big game. The Colts use the two tight ends both in tandem and solo at different times, with Ebron the preferred option downfield and in the red zone, and Doyle acting as a safety valve underneath.
Brissett was mildly effective in his return to the field against the Jaguars last week, but Jacksonville’s pass defense — and specifically pass rush — is a greater test than Houston’s. Without J.J. Watt, the Texans have struggled to generate pressure on opposing passers, and you could see last week against the Ravens just how much time Lamar Jackson had to decide to do whatever he wanted. The Ravens’ offensive line is a strong one, but it’s not like the Colts let up a ton of pressure. They do a good job of keeping rushmen away from Brissett.
The issue here for Indianapolis is that Marlon Mack is going to be out for a while, and they lose the crutch of leaning on the run game. Mack was replaced by Jonathan Williams last week against the Jaguars, and Williams exploded for over 100 yards. Jordan Wilkins could return for this game and split the carries with Williams, but Nyheim Hines figures to be in the mix on passing downs as well. That’s a decent enough rotation to account for Mack’s absence, but it’s definitely a loss.
The Colts appear to have plenty of confidence in Brissett, but it’s clear that they have wanted to base their offense around Mack this season. How will they adjust without him? That remains to be seen. If they can’t run on Houston — which has still done a nice job stopping the run even with Watt out — how does that affect the rest of what they can do on offense? It will be up to Brissett to keep up with Watson on the other side of the ball.
When the Texans have the ball
For our ongoing series about the connection between the best quarterbacks in the NFL and their No. 1 targets, we noted the DeAndre Hopkins this season.have been using
This year, it seems like the Texans have gone to considerable pains to lower the degree of difficulty on Watson-to-Hopkins throws. Hopkins ‘ catch rate sits at a career-high 72.1 percent, but his yards per reception average of 9.9 is by far the lowest of his career. During the past two seasons, Hopkins was targeted on 67 throws at least 20 yards in the air, catching 28 of them for 855 yards and eight touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus. This season, he has been targeted deep downfield only 11 times, catching just two of them for 50 yards and zero scores.
It’s good that the Texans have been trying to make life easier for these guys, but they have clearly taken things a bit too far at times, and not just with the near-elimination of the deep portion of the field. Hopkins was essentially used as a running back against the Chiefs earlier this year. These are his nine catches from that game, which totaled just 55 yards.
Against this Colts defense, though, it may be difficult for Houston to find ways to push Hopkins down the field. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus utilizes a zone-heavy system that prioritizes taking away the deep ball at nearly all costs, and the Colts are willing to concede short passes in underneath zones, confident that they can come up and rally to the ball in order to prevent big gains. The Colts have allowed only 29 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, ninth-fewest in the league.
With cornerback Rock Ya-Sin likely sitting out and Pierre Desir having been limited in practice throughout the week, though, it’s possible the Texans could find ways to take advantage on the back end. That’s particularly true if Will Fuller, who has been out for several weeks, is able to return to the field. The Texans have missed his field-stretching capabilities across from Hopkins, and his return would push Kenny Stills back into the slot, where he has been more effective this season.
The best way to disrupt the Houston passing game is almost always by getting pressure on Deshaun Watson. Even after adding Laremy Tunsil this offseason, the Texans have still been among the leakiest offensive lines in the NFL, allowing Watson to be pressured on 35.1 percent of his drop backs, per Football Outsiders, a figure that ranks fifth-worst in the NFL. The Colts don’t have any “name” pass rushers on the defensive line, but they have done an admirable job of getting after opposing quarterbacks anyway, ranking in the top half of the league in pressure rate. They sacked Watson three times when these two teams played earlier this season, and also coaxed him into two interceptions.
The Colts have not been quite as strong against the run as they have been against the pass this season, so there is some opportunity here for Carlos Hyde and/or Duke Johnson to get something going on the ground. Hyde struggled in the first matchup, but in three games since he has averaged 6.55 yards per carry on 16 attempts per game.
For probably the 1,000th straight time in a game where I am writing about his team, I am going to suggest the Texans find more ways to get Duke Johnson involved. He has somehow become pigeonholed as strictly a pass-catching back despite working as a three-down workhorse for multiple years and ending his collegiate career as the University of Miami’s all-time leading rusher. Johnson is also a tackle-breaking machine who excels at gaining yards after contact, and he is once again near the top of Football Outsiders’ elusive rating rankings. The chances of Bill O’Brien actually utilizing him more often are slim, but it could absolutely help against a defense that encourages checkdowns and forces teams to make hay after the catch.
Prediction: Texans 27, Colts 21