Prepare yourselves, football fans. Sunday could get ugly. Not ugly in the sense that the game between the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts will be a battle of two unstoppable forces, but ugly in the fact that it could be a repulsive brand of football between two marginal teams.
Both the Texans and Colts are fighting for AFC South supremacy with mediocre-at-best football teams and sub-par-at-best starting quarterbacks. The Texans will be without starter Brian Hoyer after he suffered another concussion against the Patriots, as T.J. Yates will be under center on Sunday. The Colts are even worse off, likely without their backup Matt Hasselbeck, and forced to play the one ironically known as Clipboard Jesus.
Last week, Hasselbeck was forced from the game against the Jaguars with a rib injury and has been seen around the Colts’ practice field with a sling on his left arm. While head coach Chuck Pagano won’t rule out Hasselbeck officially, Charlie Whitehurst has been taking the majority of snaps this week at practice. Whitehurst’s most recent NFL start came last season in Week 17 when he was the starting signal-caller for the Tennessee Titans playing against his current team, the Colts — whom he will likely be called upon to lead to the Promised La… er… the playoffs. Oh, the football irony.
Houston at Indianapolis
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Three Things to Watch
1. Finding a Running Game
With both teams essentially being out of quarterback options and struggling to run the ball, both coaching staffs are going to need to be creative to score points. Throughout the season, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien hasn’t hesitated to use the Wildcat offense. Often using WR Cecil Shorts and RB Jonathan Grimes, the trickery worked to open up the rest of the running game against the Saints, Bills, and Jets, but failed miserably against the Patriots last week. No one is mistaking this Colts defense for a Bill Belichick-coached group, so with proper execution, the Wildcat could be utilized this Sunday in hopes of easing the burden on T.J. Yates.
So how do the Colts win with Charlie Whitehurst running the show and no running game to speak of? The short answer is easy — divine intervention. The long answer is much more complex. The Colts still have dynamic playmakers in receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief (may not play because of a toe injury) and reliable tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwight Allen. Getting the ball to Hilton and Moncrief in space is vital, whether it be on screen passes or reverses, both need the ball, and often. Moncrief has four catches in the last two weeks, while Hilton has merely seven catches on 12 targets.
More importantly, the Colts have to establish Frank Gore on the ground. Asking Whitehurst to throw for first downs on third down is probably not the best strategy. Over the course of the past four weeks, Gore has 62 carries for 163 yards, good (…or bad) enough for 2.6 yards per rush. Gore, 32, shouldn't expect much help in the backfield, either, as the Colts’ second-leading rusher is none other than Andrew Luck, who hasn’t played in weeks. With his team being outscored 96-26 in the last two weeks, Pagano is going to have to somehow, miraculously, find a way to get his offense going in hopes to keep his team’s playoff chances alive.
2. Defense Wins AFC South Championships
While both squads find themselves in murky quarterback waters, the Texans’ defense is much more capable than that of their division counterparts. After surrendering 44 points on Oct. 25 to Miami, the Houston D rebounded, allowing a total of 35 points over the course of the next four games. But the last two weeks the defense has gone back to its inconsistent ways, permitting a combined 57 points against the Bills and Patriots. The Texans have a brilliant opportunity to seize the moment that’s been made possible due to the Colts’ offensive digression and quarterback woes.
If the Texans’ defense is inconsistent, the Colts’ defense is wildly capricious. Indianapolis’ D is not only bad, ranking 29th in yards allowed (397.6 ypg) but also undisciplined, as this unit is tied for last in penalties (122 penalties/1,010 yards). Last week, the Colts lost their first divisional game in 17 tries (an NFL record) by getting blown out by the Blake Bortles-led Jacksonville Jaguars, 51-16 (not a typo). Fifty-one points — to the Jacksonville Jaguars! The loss was the second consecutive in which the Colts lost by 35 points.
For perspective, the Colts have surrendered 902 yards of total offense, 96 points, 48 first downs, turned the ball over eight times, while allowing eight quarterback-related touchdowns (throws and runs) in the last two weeks. Chuck Pagano, known for his defensive intelligence might want to leave that out when he updates his resume for next season.
3. Speaking of Coaches...
Even before the season began, Pagano seemed at odds with his front office, turning down a one-year contract extension in the summer, “Betting on himself,” he claimed. Earlier this week Pagano seemed almost at peace with his tenure in Indianapolis possibly coming to an end, "They can fire you, but they can't eat you. So if the worst thing is a year from now, let's say I'm in Boise playing with my granddaughters, I'm going to be fine."
No matter the outcome of Pagano’s future, whether he is fired, deep-fried, or served as an appetizer at the Colts’ holiday party, he is still the head coach of a team playing for a postseason berth with a third-string quarterback. Luck will not be available whatsoever against the Texans and remains doubtful to return this season, while Hasselbeck is available but also unlikely to play much, if at all on Sunday.
This game might as well be all-or-nothing for the Colts. A win gives them the division lead with two very winnable games against the lowly Dolphins and Titans remaining on their schedule. Will Pagano be able to rally his team for one final playoff push in hopes Luck can come back? Or is Pagano’s time simply running on a short supply of hope and talent?
It’s easy to root for Chuck Pagano. Truly, Pagano is one of the NFL’s all-character men. His public defeat of cancer several years ago was an inspiration for countless people around the country, but professionally he has been dealt a poor hand and roster by general manager Ryan Grigson. The writing seems to be on the wall for the 2015 Indianapolis Colts without their All-Pro quarterback Andrew Luck and a porous defense. On paper, the Texans appear to be in similar shape as the Colts, but Houston is better suited right now to make a playoff run in the final weeks of the season, despite its own quarterback issues.
Prediction: Texans 21, Colts 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.