The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts are in a heated battle to avoid being labeled as the worst team in the AFC South a quarter of the way through the season. As it sits, the Texans are winless while the Colts aren't far behind.
A 21-9 victory over Washington in Week 2 is all that separates Indianapolis and Houston in the standings. Even though a Texans win would result in a tie record-wise, the two teams would still swap places in the standings because this is a divisional game.
To add a little more fuel to this fire, the Colts swept the season series last year and historically have dominated their division rivals. Houston is 7-25 all-time against Indianapolis, including a woeful 2-14 as the road team.
Houston at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Indianapolis -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The health of the quarterbacks
Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck have some similarities coming into this game. Both quarterbacks are former first-round picks who took the league by storm in their debut season. They’re also coming off severe injuries that have limited their success on the field.
The ups and downs for Luck have been obvious. He’s completed 68.5 percent of his 124 pass attempts this season, but he’s thrown three interceptions and hasn’t even surpassed 200 yards in either of his last two games. He's averaging just 5.3 yards per attempt, which is by far a career low.
Like Luck, Watson also has a 5:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season. The good news is that the former Clemson star has seemingly gotten better as the season has progressed. In the last two weeks, Watson has thrown for 695 yards and four touchdowns with just two picks. He's also added 80 rushing yards on only 10 attempts.
How each team’s quarterback plays will go a long way in determining which one comes out on top.
2. Houston’s defensive front seven
Watson isn’t the only franchise player for the Texans that’s coming off a major injury. The heart of soul of the team, star defensive end J.J. Watt, started off slow in his return from a tibial plateau fracture that ended his 2017 season prematurely.
The 29-year-old finally returned to form in the team’s Week 3 matchup against the New York Giants, however. Watt finished with eight tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.
Overall, Houston’s front seven is littered with quality talent. Former first-round picks like Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus serve as top-notch complements to other guys such as Benardrick McKinney and D.J. Reader.
Now it's just time for them to start playing like it. The Texans enter this game in the middle of the pack in terms of both yards (350.3, 17th in the NFL) and points (24.7, tied for 17th) allowed per game.
3. The emergence of Darius Leonard
When the Colts drafted the South Carolina State linebacker in the second round (36th overall), there were those who believed it was one of the more surprising reaches in the 2018 NFL Draft. To put it simply, those people were wrong.
In three games, the 6-foot-2, 234-pound rookie has accumulated 41 tackles, three sacks, two pass deflections and one forced fumble. His 19-tackle, one-sack performance against the Redskins in Week 2 was a major factor in the team’s victory.
The Texans’ offensive line has struggled with pass protection in the early going (10 sacks allowed), which could bode well for Leonard and the rest of the Colts’ defense.
Houston has its back against the wall. Considering some pundits had the Texans pegged as a likely playoff team, avoiding an 0-4 start to the season is going to be critical.
The Colts are going to do everything they can to avoid swapping places with the Texans in the AFC South standings, but the injuries on offense are starting to mount. Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo isn’t going to be available. Neither is tight end Jack Doyle nor running back Marlon Mack.
Until we consistently start seeing Andrew Luck’s arm strength back to 100 percent, he isn’t enough to overcome those injuries against a defense that’s still looking for its breakout performance.
Prediction: Texans 24, Colts 20
— Written by Clint Lamb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.