Colts-Texans: AFC Wild Card Weekend preview

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The Backstory


Oddly enough, it was a failed risk taken against the Texans that might have turned Indianapolis' season around and led the Colts to this very opportunity.

Tied at 34-34 late in an AFC South meeting between two struggling teams, rookie coach Frank Reich decided to take a chance and put faith in his unproven Colts. On fourth-and-4 from their 43 with 0:36 left in overtime, Reich elected not to punt. The result was a turnover on downs, and a game-winning field goal from Houston's Ka'imi Fairbairn 33 seconds later.

Negative result, right? The loss dropped Indianapolis to 1-3, appeared to be one of the most bone-headed decisions of the early portion of 2018, and eventually sent Houston on a nine-game winning streak. But Dan Orlovsky will tell you it's actually what changed the Colts' season, and he's not entirely wrong:

Indianapolis lost its next two games after that (38-24 to New England and 42-34 to the New York Jets), but eventually got on track and found itself streaking toward an unlikely turnaround just behind the team that ended up winning the division. While the decision might have been inspiration for a young, unproven team, what likely helped them even more was the return of left tackle Anthony Castonzo from injury and resulting shift in personnel up front. Castonzo made his season debut in the loss to the Jets in Week 6, and has started every game since. The Colts have lost just once in that span.

Meanwhile, the Texans went from 0-3 to 9-3. Coincidentally, their winning streak both started and ended with the Colts, who snapped the run in Week 14 with a 24-21 win. In between, the Texans eked out multiple close wins and smashed opponents intermittently, riding their 12th-ranked defense and playmaking quarterback to an AFC South crown.

There's also the success of Lamar Miller, an under-the-radar veteran who rushed for 973 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. When he runs well, the Texans' offense is drastically better. When he doesn't, the wheels all but fall off Houston's offense.

It wouldn't be Colts-Texans in 2018 (now 2019) without a three-point margin of victory, right? But which of the hotter AFC South teams can come away on the right side of a nailbiter?

Under Pressure


Houston Texans' offensive line: Deshaun Watson is lauded for his playmaking ability, and while it's a major reason why the Texans find themselves here, Houston also relies on it too often. It's a two-fold issue: First, Houston's offensive line hasn't been even passable in the pass protection department. The three interior linemen consistently fail to maintain pocket integrity, getting pushed back into the face of Watson, and his tackles aren't much better against edge rushers. Stunts confuse this group, and it has all combined to speed up Watson's internal clock. As a result, sometimes he runs from nonexistent pressure, forcing more of those outside-the-pocket plays that don't always end up working out (this helps explain his 62 sacks, tied for the most of any quarterback who made the playoffs in the Super Bowl era). Houston avoids these issues when it runs the ball well, with both gap and zone schemes producing solid gains for Miller. But when that's not working? Yikes. To Bill O'Brien's credit, he has his running quarterback doing more of that in the absence of Miller, who missed time with an ankle injury, and it's paying off. But this group will need to stand firm against the 11th-ranked Colts defense, which ranks 11th in yards allowed per game (339.4) but is in the lower third when it comes to pressuring the quarterback (21st in sack rate, 22nd in QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats).

Dontrelle Inman, WR, Colts: We know what T.Y. Hilton brings to the table against the Texans. In fact, in just this season alone, Hilton has 1.2 more receptions per game and has nearly doubled his receiving yards per game (157 versus Houston; 79.7 versus all other opponents). For his career, he's averaging 103.2 yards per game against Houston. This paints a giant target on him, and on tight end Eric Ebron, who's tied for second in the NFL in receiving touchdowns this season. These factors clear space for Inman to make a significant impact, and he doesn't need to be superhuman -- he just needs to take advantage of the opportunities when they arrive at his feet. He's done so lately, catching nine passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns in his last two games combined. There will also be an element of surprise, as Inman wasn't on the roster in Week 4 and missed Week 14's meeting.

Matchup to watch


Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt versus Colts' offensive line: We spent a healthy amount of space above talking about the importance of Houston's offensive line, but the Texans feature an excellent pass-rushing duo that must be accounted for by any opponent with aspirations of victory. Watt and Clowney have combined for 102 QB pressures this season, third most of any edge-rushing duo in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Watt is the leader of the pair, ranking sixth with 57 pressures, but they're both in the top five in average time to sack (3.61 seconds for Watt; 3.73 seconds for Clowney). They also combined for 34 tackles for loss this season, the most among a teammate duo in the NFL. See the importance of this matchup? Indianapolis features four of the top 45 linemen in the NFL in Castonzo (No. 24) and tackle Braden Smith (No. 44) and guards Quenton Nelson (No. 31) and Mark Glowinski (No. 45), according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, center Ryan Kelly -- a key piece -- is the lowest-rated member of the group (No. 64), which has been excellent since it came together in Week 6. Of quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts, Luck has been pressured the seventh least in the NFL (22.1 percent), and that number improved from Week 6 on (Luck bumps up to sixth at 19.4 percent of dropbacks). We'll see which side wins this clash of the titans (while the actual Titans lament their third-place finish behind these two teams).

Prediction


This Texans team spent a lot of the season winning ugly and rarely did victories come in convincing fashion. They needed all of overtime and a field-position break to beat the Colts early in the season and couldn't get a similar stop in a fruitless comeback effort in Week 14. Furthermore, they'll need a running game that hasn't shown up for these meetings to establish control.

The bright side: They're playing at home. The downside to that bright side: They lost to the Colts at home a month ago. Indianapolis has been on an upward path for the last half of the season and continues that journey, taking down the division champ and attempting to dethrone another the following week in one of the best surprise stories of the season.

Indianapolis Colts 24, Houston Texans 17

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