8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Texans -4, Over/Under: 45.5
As the weather turns, Division Races are heating up, particularly in the AFC South where tonight’s affair will go a long way towards deciding it’s champion, as the Indianapolis Cots and Houston Texans battle it out at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. For the second consecutive season, the Colts (6-4, 1st in AFC South) are one of the more inspiring stories in the NFL, though this time for very different reasons. In 2018, their return to the Playoffs was highlighted by the return of Andrew Luck to the league’s upper echelon of Quarterbacks, coupled with yet another excellent Draft Class, directed by a Coaching Staff that used the fact that they were far from the club’s first choice as inspiration. Though expectations were high coming into 2019, they were dealt with what appeared to be a crushing blow in the form of Luck’s abrupt retirement, which was awkwardly leaked during one of Indianapolis’ Preseason outings. Left scrambling to address the situation, the brain trust of General Manager, Chris Ballard, alongside Head Coach, Frank Reich, have done an admirable job of righting the ship, steering their team to First Place in the AFC South midway through November. For most teams, losing your Starting Quarterback, let alone a Pro-Bowler, mere weeks before the Regular Season would be the most crippling of blows. However, that hasn’t proven to be the case for the Colts. Far from it in fact, as their inspired play has made the faithful in Indianapolis (almost) forget about Luck altogether. A big reason for that has been the play of Jacoby Brissett (64.6%, 1,797 YDS, 6.19 NY/A, 15 TD, 4 INT), whom Ballard quickly locked up following the departure of his predecessor. Of course, the 26-Year Old was acquired via trade with the New England Patriots back in 2017, shortly before the Season Opener once it became crystal clear that Luck would be missing an extensive period of time. Acquainting himself rather well as the Starter, he would have to wait two more years before getting another shot at the job, and this time around, with a far superior Supporting Cast, and a Coaching Staff hellbent on getting the most out of his abilities, it should come as no surprise that both he and the Offense has prospered. In Nine Starts, he’s completed a career-high 64.6% of his Attempts for an average of 199.7 Yards per Game on 6.19 Net Yards per Attempt, with Fifteen Touchdowns in comparison Four Interceptions, while also making plenty of plays with his feet, rushing for two scores along with 122 Yards on Thirty-Nine Carries. After missing the better half of two games following a knee injury suffered early in a 24-26 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brissett returned for last weekend’s key division showdown with the Jacksonville Jaguars, whom the hosts throttled in a 33-13 victory. Truth be told, he didn’t have to do much more than simply manage the game, completing 15-of-24 Passes for 148 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception, mostly because the Colts proceeded to trample the Jags on the ground, rushing for a ridiculous 264 Yards on Thirty-Six Carries, their most productive day on the ground in fifteen years. Third-year Tailback, Marlon Mack (192 CAR, 862 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 4 TD), got things started, rushing for 109 Yards and a Touchdown on just Fourteen Carries, before exiting the affair due to a broken right hand suffered in the Third Quarter, which is expected to keep him sidelined for several weeks moving forward. Thankfully, the Backfield appears to be stocked with talent, as the seldom-used Jonathan Williams (15 CAR, 117 YDS, 7.8 Y/C, 0 TD) turned in a career day, rushing for another 116 Yards and a Touchdown on just Thirteen Carries. Furthermore, both fellow Tailback, Nyheim Hines (25 CAR, 77 YDS, 3.1 Y/C, 1 TD), and Brissett got into the act, with each player barreling into the End Zone for a score. It was day full of milestones at Lucas Oil Stadium, for the performance from Mack and Williams marked the first time since 1985 that the club featured a pair of 100-Yard Rushers in the same game, while the victory itself stands as the team’s 300th since relocating to Indianapolis in 1984. Veteran Place Kicker, Adam Vinatieri, also made some news, surpassing Morten Anderson for the most Field Goal Attempts in NFL History (710), while also becoming the first player in Franchise History to log over 500 Extra Points and top 1,500 Points overall. It’s been a difficult season for the 47-Year Old, who has had some rather dreadful performances that have prompted him to ponder retiring from the game, but nobody can question his production; since joining the club back in 2006 Vinatieri has successfully nailed more Field Goals (597) and Extra Points (503) than anyone in the league.
Meanwhile, given the circumstances that have governed the AFC South throughout the first ten weeks of the season, one would have had to think that the Texans (6-4, 2nd in AFC South) would be the odds-on favorite to repeat as Division Champions. However, as they embark on the season’s stretch run it appears that they will be in for one helluva fight, beginning with tonight’s opponent, the Colts. In what has evolved into a Quarterback-centric league, in a division in which every team apart from them has experienced some kind of change at the game’s most important position, Houston has had the benefit of fielding one of the NFL’s true MVP candidates in the form of Deshaun Watson (69.5%, 2,601 YDS, 6.64 NY/A, 18 TD, 6 INT), who has literally carried the team thus far. Few players are adept at making plays with both their arm and legs as the 24-Year Old, who in his third season as the Starter continues to evolve into one of the game’s premier playmakers. Watson is completing a career-high 69.5% of his Passes for 260.1 Yards per Game on 6.64 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eighteen Touchdown in comparison to just Six Interceptions, while rushing for another 291 Yards and Five Touchdowns on Fifty-Five Carries. With that said, upon sizing both of these teams up, it’s impossible to notice that while the Colts have once again exceeded expectations and overcome injuries by playing largely complementary football, the Texans have become increasingly more and more reliant upon the exploits of their Quarterback, with the sustainability of that game plan coming into question of late. Indeed, Bill O’Brien, while filling the void of General Manager, has packaged a number of the team’s primary assets (I.E. 1st Round Draft Picks) in an attempt to further bolster the Supporting Cast around Watson, particularly along the Offense Line, where he’s scarcely benefitted from quality protection, suffering a league-worst Sixty-Two Sacks in 2018. To that end, the Texans acquired promising young Left Tackle, Laremy Tunsil, in a multi-player trade with the tanking Miami Dolphins, hoping that the former No. 13 Overall Pick would stabilize the Offensive Line and offer a solution to protecting his blindside. However, after nine games it’s hard to tell just how much of a difference Tunsil has made; Watson was sacked a whopping EIGHTEEN times in the first four games alone, though that would change dramatically afterward, as the Line would go one to relinquish just seven in the five games that followed. However, coming off a Bye there is no other way to view their dreadful performance in a 7-41 beatdown at the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday as major step backward. In a battle of MVP candidates, Watson clearly came out the worse for wear, under intense pressure all afternoon, suffering Ten Knockdowns and Six Sacks, one in which caused a Fumble that the hosts would recover. In the end, No. 4 completed just 18-of-29 Passes for a meager 169 Yards and an Interception, leading an Offense that mustered a season-low 232 Total Yards and Sixteen First Downs, while holding possession for the football for a scant 23:41. While their problems in Pass Protection reared their ugly head once more, a bigger problem has emerged for Houston, and that’s their Defense, which was absolutely shredded for 491 Total Yards on Twenty-Five First Downs. Granted, Baltimore has been mowing opponents down over the past month, but this is really starting to turn into a full-blown crisis for O’Brien and Defensive Coordinator, Romeo Crennel. Even before three-time Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt (24 TKL, 4 TFL, 20 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), suffered his third season-ending injury in the last four years, this unit was getting eviscerated in the Passing Game, allowing 276.8 Yards per Game through the air. A Secondary that has been riddled with injuries has been a prime culprit in their struggles, with a laundry list of Defensive Backs including Tashaun Gipson (Back), Bradley Roby (Hamstring), Jonathan Joseph (Foot), and Phillip Gaines (Ankle) all missing time with various maladies. Rookie Cornerback, Lonnie Johnson (30 TKL, 5 PD), suffered an apparent knee injury over the weekend, which has prompted O’Brien to once again play GM, claiming former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Vernon Hargreaves (39 TKL, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD), off waivers following the 24-Year Old’s release from his former club citing “effort issues”. Needless to say, this team has been DESPERATE to find help at Corner, having already dealt a Third Round Pick to the Oakland Raiders for another former First Round Pick, Gareon Conley (35 TKL, 1 INT, 7 PD), shortly before the Trade Deadline back on October 29th. Now without Watt to wreck utter havoc in the trenches, the Run Defense is getting bullied too, as Ravens bludgeoned them for 263 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Six Carries, which was by far and away the worst showing from the Texans’ Defense this season. Despite getting some early breaks on the home side’s first two Drives (a Missed Field Goal and a Failed 4th Down Attempt), the visitors crumbled immediately, yielding back-to-back Touchdown Drives of eighty and seventy yards to close out the First Half, with the hosts then proceeding to run off twenty-seven consecutive points following Halftime. With Indianapolis coming off a franchise showing on the ground, Crennel had better get his troops focused for this quick turnaround on a short week, particularly given the fact that the Colts currently hold the tiebreaker for division on the strength of their previous 30-23 victory back on October 20th.