8:25 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: Indianapolis -2.5
First place in the AFC South is on the line tonight, as the Houston Texans host the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday Night Football. After a disappointing 0-2 start to the campaign, the Colts (3-2) have circled the wagons nicely, stringing together three consecutive victories as they take hold of a share of first place in the division. Much of Indianapolis’ current run has come at the expense of their neighbors in the AFC South, as Chuck Pagano’s charges continue to lord over them; since Pagano took over back in 2012, his team has amassed a 12-2 record in division play, owning a nine-game winning streak against the likes of the Titans, Jaguars, and tonight’s opponent, the Texans. Their current three-game winning streak began with back-to-back games against the Jaguars and Titans, proving to be just what the doctor ordered; over those two contests, the Colts outscored the opposition 85-34, averaging a whopping 513.5 yards in the process. However, things proved to be a bit more difficult last week against the Ravens, who brought a three-game winning streak of their own in Lucas Oil Field.
In a game where the hosts statistically dominated their adversary, the final score (20-13) didn’t reflect the tale of the tape. Indianapolis posted 422 yards, 305 via the pass and 117 via the rush, and held Baltimore to just 287 yards on fifteen First Downs. The problem, and grand equalizer, was turnovers, which came in bunches for both teams; on the day the Colts and Ravens accounted for a ridiculous seven turnovers, with the former committing four, and the latter three. Simply put, turnovers kill drives, which is precisely what happened to Pagano’s club. On their first drive of the game, Andrew Luck spearheaded an eight-play 57-yard drive that ended on the Ravens’ 21-yard line with a lost fumble. Later in the Second Quarter, two plays after recovering a muffed punt return on Baltimore’s 31-yard line, Luck’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and landed in the awaiting arms of Haloti Ngata. The mistakes continued into the Second Half, as the hosts saw a seven-play, 45-yard drive end on their opponent’s 10-yard line with another interception, followed by a lengthy eleven-play, 73-yard series concluding with another lost fumble at the visitors’ 11-yard line. If you do the math, the Colts turned the ball over four times on the Ravens’ side of the field, with three of those instances coming inside the twelve yard line. That’s a minimum of twelve points left on the field, folks, and a maximum of 28. Just imagine how prolific this offense would be if they didn’t rank nineteenth in turnovers…
Fittingly, prolific is an appropriate way of describing the Colts’ offense, which ranks among the league’s elite in several categories thus far. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers; through five games, Indianapolis ranks first in points scored (31.2), second in total offense (445.2), first in passing yards (327.4), and seventh in net yards per pass (7.1). Now in his third season in the NFL, Andrew Luck is on the verge of superstardom, exuding the playmaking skills that made him the No. One Overall Pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He has improved a bevvy of statistics across the board, posting career-highs in completion percentage (68.1%), yards per attempt (7.5), passing yards per game (323.4), passer rating (100.0), and Total QBR (76.22), all the while tossing fourteen touchdowns in the first five games. And again, this guy really likes playing against the AFC South; Luck has completed 75.0% of his passes for an average of 381.5 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception in 2014 against the likes of Jacksonville and Tennessee, and owns a lifetime 24-9 touchdown/interception ratio against the division. Furthermore, he’s habitually torched Houston in particular, tossing nine scores to one pick in four career meetings, earning a 3-1 record in the process. If only Pagano could coax some more balance out of the offense; not for lack of trying, the Colts have averaged 30.4 rushes per game, good for eighth-most in the league, but have netted just 3.9 yards per carry, the eleventh-worst in the NFL. Former Third Overall Pick (in 2012), Trent Richardson continues to underwhelm after being acquired early in 2013 for a First Round Pick, averaging just 48.0 yards per game on 3.4 yards per carry, and has consistently been outplayed by his veteran counterpart Ahmad Bradshaw, who has produced 50.0 yards per game on a healthy 5.1 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, after a dreadful 2-14 campaign which saw a complete regime change, the Texans (3-2) have in many ways overachieved in the early stages of this season, proving to be far more competitive than many pundits had predicted. Bill O’Brien has done a tremendous job of rebuilding this team in such a short amount of time, particularly given the fact that he doesn’t have a star under center. But let’s not kid ourselves, folks, for it’s not as if this team is lacking whatsoever in the talent department. After all, despite last year’s dismal performance, this team had won back-to-back AFC South Titles in 2011 and 2012. Many of the pieces from those teams remain in place, including Pro Bowlers Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, and Duane Brown on offense, and the likes of J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing patrolling the defense. By no means is the cupboard bare, and the former Penn State Head Coach is getting the most out of them. That includes veteran Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom they signed in the offseason after the journeyman washed out of Tennessee after spending one season as a backup. The former Bills’ passer clearly has his limitations, but O’Brien, the Patriot’s Quarterbacks’ Coach from 2009 to 2011, has structured the offense to play to his strength and mask his weaknesses.
Through the first five games of the season, the Texans’ offense has been far from prolific, employing a far more conservative approach than that of their opponent tonight. It’s all about ball control and possession for O’Brien’s offense, which has averaged 20.8 points (23rd overall) on 340.2 yards (22nd overall), including 213.2 through the air (24th overall), and another 127.0 on the ground (11th overall). They don’t throw the ball very much, attempting the fewest passes in the league at 27.6 per game, but they do make them count, netting a healthy 7.4 net yards per attempt, the fifth-highest figure in the league. That brings us back to Fitzpatrick, who has embraced his role as a Game Manager, greatly benefiting from O’Brien’s guidance on his way towards posting career-highs of his own in completion percentage (65.0%) and yards per attempt (7.7). However, turnovers have haunted him throughout his ten-year career; the 32-year old vet has a lifetime 111-99 touchdown/interception ratio, and has tossed five scores this season, while being picked off six times. Expect him to lean on the running game heavily tonight, so that they can limit the amount of time that Indianapolis possesses the ball, and in turn diminishing the probability of turning it over. The aforementioned Foster figures to have a prominent role in that regard, averaging 101.0 yards on a robust 4.7 yards per clip. Foster missed half of the 2013 campaign due to back injuries, and has been troubled by a nagging hamstring that has already cost him one game this season. However, when he’s been on the field, he’s proven to be an invaluable asset, not just in the running game, but also as a receiver out of the backfield, hauling in thirteen balls for 99 yards.
As we stated earlier, O’Brien inherited plenty of talent in Houston, and that extends to the defensive side of the ball, where his team has done a tremendous job of keeping their opponents out of the end zone. New Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel hasn’t had to change much on this unit, making some minor tweaks that have translated to a litany of takeaways, which the Texans lead the NFL in. That’s right folks, a year after posting the worst turnover differential in the league (-20), the Texans have reversed their fortunes, forcing twelve turnovers, five of which are interceptions and another seven being recovered fumbles. Philosophically speaking, they don’t attack the line of scrimmage like they did under Wade Phillips,choosing instead to cause confusion by mixing coverages and using a multitude of fronts. As a result, the defense checks in at just 24tth overall in yards allowed (385.4), including 20th against the pass (253.3) and 25th against the rush (132.2), but yield the fourth-fewest amount of points in the league (17.4). That was the case in last weekend’s 20-17 overtime loss at Dallas, where the visitors were gashed for 456 total yards, but managed to create three takeaways, leveling the playing field for their own offense, which could muster just 330 yards. The aforementioned Watt continues to be a dominant force on the Defensive Line, making good on the sizable $100 million investment that the franchise made in him shortly before the season began. Thus far, Watt has accumulated nineteen tackles, a pair of sacks, two deflected passes, and an interception which he returned for the game-winning score two weeks ago against the Bills. If there is a play made defensively, odds are this guy will be in the mix.