Game Preview: Who will take charge of the AFC South as Texans face Colts?

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The Colts rolled into their bye last week off the back of an impressive road victory over the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. This win was, quite rightly, viewed as a huge upset and great result for Head Coach Frank Reich and his young team. There was also a definite tinge of revenge to the result, after the Chiefs dumped the Colts out of the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs on a snowy day back in January.

However, the recent accomplishment was tarnished slightly when the Texans did the exact same thing a week later, rolling over the Chiefs in an impressive 31-24 victory to go 4-2 and into sole ownership of first place in the AFC South. The Chiefs are now one game ahead of the 3-2 Colts with their bye week scheduled for Week 10.

This Sunday appears to set up a battle between the two primary contenders for the AFC South title, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans both already lagging behind at 2-4. The Jaguars have just traded away their best player, Jalen Ramsey, to the LA Rams and the Titans look to be in an even worse state having benched their franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, in their shut-out loss to the Broncos last week.

There is no doubt the star power in this game is lined up on the Texans’ side of the field. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and pass rusher JJ Watt are all unquestionably elite at their positions and have the ability to wreck any opposition’s game plan, no matter who you are. There are questions to be asked in terms of roster depth but, while the star men remain healthy, they are a formidable group.

However, the Colts will have no fear of this game, having beaten the Texans twice in the space of a month towards the end of last year, including a victory in the Wild Card round of the playoffs – although it cannot be overstated that these victories were under the command of recently retired superstar QB Andrew Luck. Jacoby Brissett has filled his shoes admirably, but is clearly not the same player. He lacks the ability to produce the big time throws Luck previously delivered on a regular basis, although this was never expected from the former New England Patriot.

To get a read on who will come out on top at Lucas Oil Stadium, let’s look at three key factors that will determine the outcome of a game which, on paper, could be a classic.

Running game

Credit: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

This game brings together the fourth- and fifth-best rushing attacks in the league, with the Colts coming out just ahead with 142 yards per game. Colts running back Marlon Mack has been one of the best runners in the NFL this year and is tied for the most rushing first downs in the league.

A great deal of this success can be attributed to the Colts now having an exceptional offensive line, with left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Anthony Castonzo in particular feeling the love from PFF, with both featuring in the top 5 graded linemen for the 2019 season so far. Nelson continues to be seen in the dressing room wearing a hat emblazoned with “Run the Damn Ball” and here is hoping the mantra continues to run true.

The Colts’ young defense

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 21: Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts is seen before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Colts should have one of their defensive superstars back as reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard returns at linebacker from a three-week spell in the concussion protocol. However, ball-hawk safety Malik Hooker will be a game-time decision, with Frank Reich intimating Hooker’s appearance is doubtful.

With the deep threat the Texans pose with receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, who have both started the season well, the Colts will be relying on several youngsters to step up. Starting cornerback Kenny Moore is also out this week, so there is a big role to fill for the remaining CBs, including youngsters Quincy Wilson and rookie second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin has been solid in his early career but is susceptible to those rookie errors that are so easily punished on a developing defensive back.

While Hopkins is undoubtedly one of the best in the game, his lowest two receiving days in the last three years have come against the Colts and, specifically, Pierre Desir. Desir is another injury concern and will be a game-time decision for Matt Eberflus’ defense.

With a depleted secondary, the Colts will need to deliver a pass rush to at least give Deshaun Watson something to think about. The Colts sacked Watson 15 (yes, fifteen) times in 2018 alone but, with the addition of Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, the Texans appear to be on the cusp of solving their offensive line issues, which have plagued the franchise for years. It is worth noting Houston look like they will be without their starting right tackle, rookie Tytus Howard, who injured his knee in Week 6, but the Colts are equally hurt with the news that second-year pass rusher Kemoko Turay has been placed on season-ending IR after a promising start to his year. Expect rookie Ben Banogu to take plenty of the snaps vacated by Turay.

TY Hilton

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Indianapolis Colts
Credit: Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

A Colts-Texans preview would not be complete without mentioning the fact that TY Hilton has owned the Houston team in his career, and I mean OWNED! Hilton has played the Texans 15 times since entering the league in 2012, basically a season’s worth of games, and in that time has recorded 78 catches, 1,506 yards and nine touchdowns. To put that in context, Julio Jones has only bettered that total in one of his last three seasons.

After TY Hilton called the Texans’ NRG stadium his “second home” last year, it was not taken too kindly by Texans CB Johnathan Joseph who said the comment was “for clowns”. Hilton’s response was to turn up to the second meeting of the year in a clown mask, before going for 85 yards in a comfortable Colts win.

However, the 2019 Colts are a run-first team, and are currently ranked 27th in pass yards per game. Jacoby Brissett needs to start utilising the weapons he has on the outside, as well as two of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league in Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Will this be the game we see Brissett emerge from the looming shadow of Andrew Luck or will he continue to be a safe option under centre while not providing that explosive ability that made the Colts a real danger last year?

Prediction

One final point to look out for before I make my prediction. This game brings together the league’s best fourth-down conversion offense (Colts), who are 7-for-7 so far, against the league’s second-worst fourth-down defense, so look for Frank Reich to continue his aggressive approach this Sunday. Additional spice is added based on the fourth-down conversion fail that cost the Colts the win in the last game between these two at Lucas Oil Stadium, allowing the Texans to leave town with an overtime win.

I am still kicking myself from doubting my Colts’ in my prediction for Week 5 against the Chiefs (although I can argue my logic was sound), but I will not make the same mistake this week, even though it will be a close one.

Prediction: Texans 27, Colts 30

Featured Picture – Credit: Todderick Hunt/NJ Advanced Media

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