8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Texans -1.5, Over/Under: 47.5
The final weekend of the regular season begins in advance of its ultimate Sunday, as the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts clash in a matchup featuring two young teams well ahead of schedule with a trip to the postseason on the line. Coming into this Fall, few could have predicted the growth and subsequent success of the Texans (9-7, Tied 1st in AFC South), who have made a complete about-face under the leadership of (Head Coach) DeMeco Ryans. Over the previous three seasons, this franchise had become something of a wasteland, what with four different coaches (including an interim) overseeing an 11-38 disaster that lacked any semblance of direction. However, (General Manager) Nick Caserio finally got things right in luring (former Linebacker) Ryans back to the club that drafted him seventeen years ago, kickstarting what appears to be a prosperous new era for the NFL’s youngest franchise. Fresh off of coordinating the top defense in the league in San Francisco, the 39-year-old has returned to his old stomping grounds with a force, changing the culture in South Texas thanks to an infusion of new ideas on the sidelines and a plethora of young talent that flourished under the direction of he and his coaching staff. Armed with two of the top-three picks in last Spring’s NFL Draft, Caserio and Ryans hit a pair of home runs with (2nd Overall Pick) C.J. Stroud and (3rd Overall Pick) Will Anderson, who have made considerable impacts on their respective sides of the football. With seven sacks and thirty-two pressures, Anderson has featured heavily for a defense that has improved from twenty-seventh and thirtieth in points and total yards allowed, to thirteenth (20.9) and fourteenth (328.9) in those same categories, while also placing ninth on third down (37.0%) with a healthy turnover differential of +9. However, the biggest revelation has been the play of Stroud (pictured below), who for all intents and purposes has proven to be miles ahead of any of his rookie counterparts this season, as well many veterans starting around the league. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that there was even a debate as to which Quarterback would be selected first overall, as the Ohio State product has completed 63.2% of his throws for an average of 274.6 yards on 6.94 net yards per attempt, with twenty-one touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, with a QBR of 54.4. To put this into perspective, this rookie is leading the league in interception percentage (1.1%) despite attempting 33.7 passes for game, which ranks among the most at his position. Again, credit to Caserio and Ryans for bringing a number of offensive assistants over from San Francisco, including (Offensive Coordinator) Bobby Slowik, who has installed the same successful scheme that has proven so fruitful for the Niners. When we last saw the Texans, they set up tonight’s decisive contest with a 26-3 victory over the Titans last weekend, their second over the franchise that had previously occupied South Texas in three weeks. Making his first start in two games after recovering from a concussion, Stroud & Co. had to regain their rhythm in this one and looked rusty in doing so, amassing 312 total yards on twenty first downs and converting just 3-of-11 third downs. Despite driving downfield on a number of occasions, they were forced to settle for four field goals courtesy of (veteran Kicker) Ka’imi Fairbairn, with all but one coming within forty yards. Stroud completed an efficient 24-of-32 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown, while (veteran Tailback) Devin Singletary rushed for eighty yards on sixteen carries, with (young Wideout) Nico Collins hauling in seven receptions for eighty yards of his own. Thankfully, this modest offensive output was more than enough for Houston, who utterly dominated the visitors defensively, relegating Tennessee to a scant 187 total yards on eleven first downs, along with 1-of-12 on third down, six sacks, twelve hits, fourteen pressures, and the game’s lone turnover, a strip sack of Will Levis by (veteran Edge-Rusher) Jerry Hughes recovered by (veteran Defensive Tackle) Sheldon Rankins.
From a betting perspective, the Texans are 9-7 straight-up as they head into this decisive season finale and have been almost as rewarding against the spread in posting an 8-8 mark in that regard. It has been a 50-50 proposition when wagering on Houston for six weeks now, as they have alternated covers and non-covers during that period of time. Granted, Stroud’s absence due to the effects of a concussion proved to be instrumental here, though it should be noted that the first of their two covers over the Titans in the three weeks came without the Rookie of the Year frontrunner. It should also be noted that the line in tonight’s affair opened with Ryans’ troops as 1.5-point underdogs, before flipping in the opposite direction. This is significant because the Texans are 6-4 against the spread when receiving points from the oddsmakers in comparison to 2-5 as a favorite this Fall. Furthermore, this is a team that is 6-0-1 versus the spread in their last seven outings as a road underdog of 0.5-3.0 points, which if we refer to that opening line, plays very well in the favor of Stroud & Co. Looking at this particular matchup, these young Texans fell short in a 20-31 encounter at NRG Stadium back in mid-September, which served as the second start of Stroud’s career. This one was all Indy early on, as the visitors raced out to a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter, before taking a 28-10 advantage into halftime. The deficit swelled to twenty-one points before the home side added some consolation scores, including a 23-yard strike from Stroud to (Rookie Wideout) Tank Dell. In the end, Houston really controlled this contest from a statistical POV, outgaining the visiting side 389-353 in total yardage and 384-227 in passing yards, along with sizable advantages in first downs (24-19) and time of possession (34:58). However, the difference proved to be the game’s lone turnover, a strip sack of Stroud from his own 23-yard line on their opening drive, which immediately led to a Colts touchdown on the ensuing play. Apart from that miscue in ball security, the young passer was quite good, completing 30-of-47 passes for 384 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the first of which went to the aforementioned Collins, who totaled 146 yards on seven receptions. Dell would add seventy-two yards on seven catches, while (veteran Receiver) Robert Woods totaled seventy-four yards on six receptions. On the injury front, Dell will miss this one and any potential postseason run due to a fractured fibula suffered three weeks ago, while (fellow pass-catcher) Noah Brown (back) and (young Edge-Rusher) Jonathan Greenard (ankle) are also out with respective maladies. (Pro-Bowl Tackle) Laremy Tunsil (groin), (Rookie Edge-Rusher) Will Anderson (ankle), (Defensive Tackles) Maliek Collins (hip) and Rankins (ankle), and the aforementioned Woods (hip) are all listed as questionable, though are more than likely to participate according to Ryans. Looking ahead, this matchup will decide one of the AFC’s Wild Cards, though depending on the outcome of the Jaguars/Titans, it could also crown the division winner, which would in turn guarantee said franchise a home game in next weekend’s opening round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Colts (9-7, Tied 1st in AFC South) are proving to be an even unlikelier success story, thanks in large part to the absences of a number of prominent playmakers. Fresh off coordinating the Eagles’ offense all the way to Super Bowl LVII, (Head Coach) Shane Steichen has done a remarkable job reshaping a franchise that had fallen on hard times in recent seasons, and just like his counterpart tonight, should be considered as a serious candidate for Coach of the Year honors. First and foremost, he and the club were forced to deal with the trade demand of (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Jonathan Taylor, who initially refused to play for Indianapolis ever again following a falling out with management. After leading the NFL in rushing two years ago, Taylor succumbed to an injury-plagued 2022 campaign, and would go on to miss the first four games of this season due to “injury”. To their credit, Indy balked at his demands, eventually forcing him back to the gridiron come October, though it’s not like they really needed him anyway; (veteran Tailback) Zack Moss (764 yards, 5 TD) performed admirably in his absence, while (Rookie Quarterback) Anthony Richardson, whom they selected fourth overall, proved to be a major asset rushing the football early on with 131 rushing yards and four touchdowns through the first three games. Unfortunately, the youngster took too many hits during that span, leading to a pair of concussions and a shoulder injury that would prematurely end his campaign after just four weeks. Thankfully, Steichen had (veteran Quarterback) Gardner Minshew to turn to. Coming over from Philadelphia where he had served as a Backup to Jalen hurts, Minshew (pictured below) was intended to provide his rookie teammate with a tutor to learn Steichen’s offense, though has instead served as their starter for two-thirds of the term. Say what you will about the journeyman, but in a season in which so many teams have been forced to explore alternative options at the most important position in the sport, the Colts are fortunate to have him; the definition of a gamer, completing 62.7% of his passes for an average of 197.8 yards on 5.98 net yards per attempt, with fifteen touchdowns in comparison to nine interceptions, and a QBR of 60.3. It has also helped that Steichen opted to retain the services of (Defensive Coordinator) Gus Bradley, who continues to milk a unit for everything he can, despite not having the most talented group in the first place. Ranked twenty-seventh in points allowed (24.5) and twenty-fourth in total defense (352.6), Indianapolis has thrived off of takeaways (24), including a healthy +11 advantage in their nine victories. (Unheralded Linebacker) Zaire Franklin has been a tackling machine with 170 tackles thus far, while the duo of (Defensive Backs) Kenny Moore and Julian Blackmon have combined for seven interceptions and a pair of touchdowns. When we last saw the Colts, they escaped the Raiders in a 23-20 victory, aided heavily by an error on special teams by the visiting side. Clinging to a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Steichen’s troops were forced to attempt a 50-yard field that (veteran Kicker) Matt Gay missed, though a sensational offsides penalty on Las Vegas allowed the hosts to attempt the kick once more, though this time from forty-five yards out, which Gay drilled between the uprights. In the end, Indy pulled this one out despite being outgained 349-370 in total yardage, 16-26 on first downs, and time of possession (26:16) thanks in large part to their knack for taking care of the football and bending but not breaking on defense. Minshew completed 15-of-23 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown, while Taylor rushed for ninety-six yards and a score on twenty-one carries. (Defensive Linemen) DeForest Buckner and Tyquan Lewis combined for two sacks, four hits, and three pressures, while (Rookie Cornerback) Julian Brents was very active in coverage with three defended passes.
From a betting perspective, the Colts are 9-7 both straight-up and against the spread this Fall, though they have cooled off considerably in that latter regard during the month of December. At one point, Indianapolis stood as one of the most profitable teams to wager upon, 8-4 through twelve contests, though since 31-28 victory over Tennessee have covered just one of their last four outings. This included an ugly 10-29 loss at the Falcons before narrowly surviving last weekend’s win over the Raiders. We spoke before how tonight’s line opened with Steichen’s troops as slight favorites (1.5 points) before shifting in favor of Houston, which should also play towards Indy, who have covered FIVE consecutive games in which they were favored by 0.5-3.0 points. Furthermore, they have fancied performing on Saturday Nights, where they are 5-0 against the spread in their past five such affairs. Working against them though, is the fact that this is a team that failed to cover four straight tilts in the month of January. Simply put, they have made a habit of underperforming in these season finales. Looking at this particular matchup, the Colts have owned this divisional rivalry for five years now, winning seven of their last ten encounters and posting a 7-2-1 record against the spread along the way. When they crossed paths earlier this Fall, Indianapolis earned a 31-20 victory on the road at NRG Stadium, exhibiting the potential of what this team can grow to become under Steichen when healthy. The visitors got off to an early start with back-to-back rushing touchdowns courtesy of Richardson of eighteen and fifteen yards, aided heavily by the aforementioned strip of Stroud by (young Defensive End) Dayo Odeyingbo. Unfortunately, Richardson suffered a concussion midway through the first half, leaving Minshew to pick up the slack, which he did with a 4-yard touchdown pass to (young Tight End) Kylen Granson. Though the hosts edged them in many categories, the ground game was key for Indy, who outrushed the Texans 126-53, thanks in large part the exploits of (veteran Tailback) Zack Moss, churning out eighty-eight yards and an 11-yard score on eighteen carries. Minshew completed 19-of-23 passes for 171 yards and that touchdown, spreading passes to eight different targets, with (fourth-year Receiver) Michael Pittman Jr. chief among them with eight catches for fifty-six yards. Bradley’s unit really got after Stroud, sacking the rookie SIX times, hitting him on nine occasions, and logging a whopping NINETEEN pressures. (Edge-Rushers) Kwity Paye and Samson Ebukam each totaled one sack and three pressures apiece, combining for three hurries and one more knockdown. On the injury front, (Offensive Linemen) Quenton Nelson (ankle), Ryan Kelly (ankle), and Braden Smith (knee) were all limited throughout the week of practice and are thus listed as questionable with various ailments, with (veteran Cornerback) Kenny Moore (back) and Moss (forearm) sharing that same designation. Looking ahead, a win tonight would book a trip to the playoffs for the Colts, who haven’t advanced to the postseason since 2020, though as we stated earlier, they could end up winning the division for the first time in nine years, which would ensure that Lucas Oil Field will be hosting such a contest.