4:35 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Texans -1.5, Over/Under: 48.5
Finally, the Playoffs are here, and what better way to kick things off than with a rubber match between division rivals? That’s what’s on tap today as the Indianapolis Colts face off against the Houston Texans for the third time this season, from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. After a dismal 1-5 start, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team entering the Postseason carrying more momentum than the Colts (10-6, 2nd in AFC South), who ended the Regular Season as winners of nine out of their final ten contests. Frank Reich’s charges have been on fire on both sides of the football, with a high-powered Offense led by inevitable Comeback Player of the Year Andrew Luck, and a youthful Defense that seems to get better with each passing week. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even Indianapolis’ first (or second) choice to be their new Head Coach, huh? Granted, General Manager Chris Ballard deserves heaps of praise for overhauling this once depleted roster in relatively short order with a wealth of inspired Draft Selections, along with some gambles in Free Agency that have really paid off (I.E. Eric Ebron and his 12 Touchdown Receptions). No. Six Overall Pick Quenton Nelson has been dominant at Guard, solidifying an Offensive Line that has long been a problem for the franchise, while Second Round Pick Darius Leonard (163 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 7.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 FR, 2 INT, 8 PD) has been as active as anyone in the league, leading the NFL with a whopping 165 Tackles, 111 of the solo variety. The Defense as a whole has improved exponentially this year, allowing just 16.4 Points per Game on 311.0 Total Yards over the final ten outings, which is the second-fewest in the league over that span.
However, while Ballard has been playing personnel chess with his contemporaries, and Reich has done a masterful job of developing the young talent at his disposal, the biggest story out of Indianapolis this year has been the resurrection of Andrew Luck (67.3%, 4,593 YDS, 6.79 NY/A, 39 TD, 15 INT, 71.5 QBR), the former No. One Overall Pick and savior of the franchise, who missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign due to complications rehabbing a lingering shoulder injury. At the beginning of the term, the Three-Time Pro Bowl Quarterback certainly appeared to be rusty, but as his arm strength gradually returned to his person, so too did the big plays, for Luck set an NFL Record for consecutive games throwing at least Three Touchdowns (8). The Offense too, has returned to it’s formally prolific form, averaging 27.1 Points per Game (5th Overall) on 394.6 Total Yards (7th Overall), including 287.2 Yards through the air (6th Overall) on 6.74 Net Yards per Attempt (9th Overall), and another 107.4 Yards on the ground (20th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (22nd Overall), all the while pacing the league on Third Down, converting a stellar 48.6% of their Attempts (1st Overall). As we alluded to earlier, a dramatic improvement in protection has played no small role in his success, for Luck has been sacked just eighteen times this season, a far departure from the forty-one that he sustained back in 2016, equating to a miniscule Sack Percentage of 2.7%, which in addition to being by far and away a career-best, is also the lowest mark in the NFL. Indeed, it’s amazing what a little bit of protection can do for a Quarterback…
As we also touched upon in the opening, this meeting with the Texans will be the third such affair this season, with each team besting the other on the road. When they first met back on September 30th, the Colts came up short in a wild 37-34 battle that needed overtime to claim a victor, though all anyone could talk about was Reich’s curious decision to go for it on 4th & 4 from their own 43-Yard Line with 0:27 left to play. Luck’s attempt went astray, as the visitors promptly took advantage of the situation, and picked up another Twenty-Four Yards before kicking the walk-off 37-Yard Field Goal. Thankfully, when they met ten weeks later, Indianapolis stormed into NRG Stadium, and escaped with a 24-21 victory largely on the strength of a 17-Point Second Quarter. Reich’s Offense torched Houston’s stout Defense, totaling 436 Yards, with Luck completing 27-of-41 Passes for 399 Yards, Two Touchdowns and an Interception, with T.Y. Hilton (76 REC, 1,270 YDS, 16.7 Y/R, 6 TD) reeling in Nine Receptions on Twelve Targets for a staggering 199 Yards. Luck and Hilton’s pyrotechnics aside, the biggest difference between this matchup and the previous one, was the Defense, which really got after the hosts, relegating them to just 315 Total Yards, sacking Deshaun Watson five times, and most importantly, getting off the field; Indianapolis held them to just 5-of-15 on the Third Down (33.3%), a huge departure of the 10-of-17 (58.9%) that they permitted back in Week Four. While this team is very young on both sides of the football, Luck has plenty of Playoff Experience, going 3-3 in six Postseason Starts, though he’s only completed 56.4% of his Attempts with Nine Touchdowns opposed to Twelve Interceptions. Of course, Reich served as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Offensive Coordinator during their run to a Super Bowl last season, which led to his hiring in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Texans (11-5, 1st in AFC South) have taken a similar path in their return to the Playoffs, overcoming a disappointing 0-3 start to the campaign before winning eleven of their final thirteen contests. At one point, Bill O’Brien’s charges strung together a nine-game winning streak, which of course was snapped by the Colts in their second meeting of the season. Also similar to Indianapolis, their performances improved greatly as their young Quarterback returned to health. Deshaun Watson (68.3%, 4,165 YDS, 6.67 NY/A, 26 TD, 9 INT, 63.0 QBR), who missed the final nine games of 2017 after tearing his ACL in a midseason practice, started off slowly, but eventually recaptured the scintillating form that validated his high selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. In the first three games of the term, the Sophomore Quarterback was completing just 59.4% of his Attempts for an average of 290.3 Yards, with Five Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, while rushing for another 40.0 Yards to boot. However, the rest of the way was quite different, as he completed a much-improved 70.7% of his Passes for 253.4 Yards per Game, with Twenty-One Touchdowns in comparison to just Six Interceptions. He also exhibited far greater confidence in using his legs to escape the Pocket, rushing for 431 Yards and Five Touchdowns.
However, he has had to use those legs partly out of necessity, for unlike his counterpart in Indianapolis, Watson has NOT been the recipient of quality Pass Protection this year. O’Brien and his Staff knew that the Offensive Line was going to be a work in progress entering the season, for the Texans completely overhauled this Position Group, with three different starters, many of them with little experience. As a result, his Quarterback has had to improvise a lot more than he’d have liked, for nobody has suffered more sacks this season than Watson, who was dropped for a loss on a staggering sixty-two occasions, losing nearly 400 Yards in the process. And that right there is how an otherwise productive Offense has found itself routinely struggling on both Third Down (37.0%) and in the Red Zone (50.0%), ranking Twentieth and Twenty-Seventh respectively. Injuries in the Receiving Corps have also begun to have an impact, for while DeAndre Hopkins (115 REC, 1,572 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 11 TD) remains one of the most prolific in the league at his position, there is suddenly a dearth of talent surrounding the Three-Time Pro Bowler. It all started when Will Fuller (32 REC, 503 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 4 TD) tore his ACL midway through the campaign, and Demaryius Thomas (23 REC, 275 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 2 TD), whom Houston acquired at the Trade Deadline, suffered a ruptured Achilles in the penultimate week of the season. All this means is that Watson will have to buy more and more time with his legs for his targets to get open, which is a dangerous situation given the volume of hits that he’s taken already.
While Pass Protection and a decimated Offense remains a huge concern for the Texans, there should also be a good deal of attention paid to a worrisome Defense, which over the final quarter of the campaign, has struggled to maintain the form that they exhibited throughout the season and in year’s past. In 2018, Houston was generally in good standing on this side of the football, allowing 19.8 Points per Game (4th Overall) on 343.1 Total Yards (12th Overall), thanks in large part to arguably the nastiest Run Defense in the league, yielding just 82.7 Yards per Game (3rd Overall) on 3.4 Yards per Carry (1st Overall), and a healthy Twenty-Nine Takeaways (4th Overall). However, a deeper dive will expose some significant holes in Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel’s unit; as good as they were against the run, this group was very susceptible to the pass, relinquishing 260.4 Passing Yards (28th Overall) on 6.5 Net Yards per Attempt (18th Overall) and Twenty-Eight Passing Touchdowns (18th Overall). Furthermore, they were far from stout on Third Down, giving up a conversion 40.1% of the time (20th Overall), and were even more disappointing in the Red Zone, with opponents scoring a touchdown on a dismal 70.7% of all opportunities (29th Overall). A particular four-game stretch in December immediately comes to mind, in which Houston went 2-2 against the likes of the Cleveland Browns (29-13), Indianapolis Colts (21-24), New York Jets (29-22), and Philadelphia Eagles (30-32), giving up an average of 425.3 Total Yards, including 368.3 Yards against the Pass. Granted, Turnovers bailed them out more than a few times, with the Texans owning a very healthy Plus-8 Differential in that span.