Week 5’s Thursday night matchup will feature two teams trending in opposite directions. The Indianapolis Colts seem to have gotten their season back on track with consecutive wins against Tennessee and Jacksonville, while the Houston Texans sit at 1-3, coming off of an embarrassing 48-21 loss to Atlanta.
The Colts' winning streak may provide them with some much-needed momentum heading into the Houston matchup, but it does not look like Thursday night will see the return of quarterback Andrew Luck, however. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported early this morning that the Colts intend to go with backup Matt Hasselbeck under center for the second straight game.
Regardless of who has been under in quarterback, Indianapolis could just as easily be entering Week 5 without a win. The Colts are literally two plays away from sitting at 0-4, and they have yet to face a legitimate NFL contender. The bottom line is that the Colts are not playing very good football right now, including their Pro Bowl quarterback Luck. Momentum aside, they know full well that they are a long way off from last year’s success.
Houston, on the other hand, does not even have the luxury of momentum on its side. The Texans do have one ugly win over Tampa Bay in Week 3, and they were somewhat competitive in losses to the Chiefs and Panthers, but last week’s beating at the hands of the Falcons may have very well sucked the life out of this football team.
This will be the 27th time the Colts have faced the Texans. Indianapolis holds a commanding 22-4 edge in the series. Houston has not celebrated a victory against Indianapolis since 2012, as the Texans have lost the past five meetings. This game also marks the first return trip to Houston for Andre Johnson, the Texans' all-time leading wide receiver who now catches passes for the Colts.
Indianapolis at Houston
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: CBS/NFL Network
Spread: Houston -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Indianapolis' Quarterback Quandary
The big storyline all week had been the potential return of Luck for the Colts, but that does not appear to be the case. It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise, however, considering reports earlier this week suggesting Luck had suffered a partially separated shoulder, which is fairly serious. The Colts have denied this, and Luck had stated that he intended to play.
The reality is that even if Luck was able to play, he wouldn't have been at 100 percent and it's not like he has played that great when he's been on the field. In three games, Luck has completed just 56 percent of his passes, he has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a game, and he has seven interceptions compared to just five touchdown passes. To put some perspective on the situation, Houston quarterback Ryan Mallett currently has a quarterback rating that is 21 points higher than Andrew Luck’s 30.9 QBR.
In fairness, the Colts' shaky offensive line should assume most of the responsibility for Luck’s woes this season. The front line has failed miserably in its attempt to give their quarterback adequate time to throw or to even keep him upright. In fact, Luck and Matt Hasselbeck have taken a combined 68 hits through four games, the most in the NFL.
So once again, it looks like the QB duties will fall to Hasselbeck, who has 153 career starts under his belt. He led the Colts to victory last week against Jacksonville, completing 30 of 47 passes for 282 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Unfortunately, Hasselbeck himself won't likely be at 100 percent since he's dealing with an illness of some sort that had him listed as questionable.
There's also the matter of the aforementioned shaky offensive line play, which will certainly be tested tonight trying to fend off sack monster J.J. Watt. Watt had four sacks in the teams' two meetings last season, and those four takedowns came against a much better offensive line than the one Indianapolis currently is putting on the field. In fact, it may be in the Colts' best interests to keep Luck on the bench for another game, and just hope and pray that somehow Hasselbeck can make it through the game so they don't have to call on No. 3 Josh Johnson, who was signed on Wednesday. Not a good situation any way you slice it.
2. Houston's Offense
On paper, the Texans’ offense looks solid, ranking seventh in the NFL with 384 yards per game. The problem is that statistics can sometimes be deceiving. The reality is that Houston has been able to pad its numbers playing from behind in garbage time. The more telling stat is that the Texans' offense is only producing 19 points per game, which also is somewhat padded thanks to garbage time touchdowns.
The Texans' passing game is subpar at best, which is evident by the ever-changing quarterback rotation between Mallett and Brian Hoyer. A Texans' run game that has produced just 3.7 yards per play provides even more insight into Houston’s offensive woes. The return of Arian Foster last Sunday from a preseason groin injury was supposed to be the cure-all. Instead, a rusty Foster only managed to run for 10 yards on eight carries against the Falcons.
Foster is in line for more touches on Thursday. For the sake of the Texans’ offense, it is crucial that Foster return to form. A healthy Foster would go a long way against an Indianapolis defense that is allowing 120 rushing yards per game. The Colts' defense has been rather generous with opposing offenses in general. So, the potential is there for Houston's offense to get on track this week, especially if Foster can get going.
Turnovers have plagued both of these teams thus far, which make them an obvious issue of concern for tonight's matchup. The Colts have turned it over 12 times through four games, more than any other team in the NFL, and have just three takeaways (all INTs). Their minus-nine turnover differential is far and away the worst in the league.
The Texans have fared better in the turnover department, but that is not saying much given their minus-six turnover differential, which places them just ahead of the Colts at the bottom of the rankings. The offense has committed eight turnovers - four INTs and four fumbles lost. Houston's defense has yet to really generate a bunch of takeaways with just two picks to its credit thus far.
While there is little evidence to support it so far this season, the Houston defense has traditionally been an opportunistic group. Colts running back Frank Gore has been a fumbling machine, and the passing game has produced more interceptions than touchdown passes through four games. Conversely, the Colts should also be able to force a Texans offense, in a current state of disarray, into a few mistakes of its own. The team that wins the turnover battle will likely be the one that comes out on top.
For the Colts’ offense, this game comes down to two crucial points of emphasis. Protecting the quarterback and limiting turnovers. The Colts’ anemic offensive line will surely have its hands full against two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. On defense, Indianapolis will need to key on Arian Foster and force Ryan Mallett to throw early and often to a depleted receiving corps.
The Texans' offense will have to lean heavily on Foster, in the hope that he can return to All-Pro form. Ryan Mallett will need to play efficiently and be a game manager, something he has yet to prove capable of. It will be even more difficult without injured wide receivers Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts in the fold. On defense, Houston will need to get its pass rush going and apply as much heat as is humanly possible on Indianapolis quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Houston needs someone other than Watt to step up on defense. Watt is responsible for four of the Texans’ six sacks so far. Inexcusable for a defense that also features Vince Wilfork, Whitney Mercilus (questionable with a thigh injury), Jadeveon Clowney, and Brian Cushing.
Both teams enter this game pretty beaten up physically, and neither team should feel supremely confident in the product that they have put on the field to date. The big question is, how much did last week’s embarrassing loss effect the Texans? It is too early in the season to believe that Houston is just going to roll over and die, especially in a divisional game in front of the home crowd. Plus, the Colts’ luck is well overdue to run out (no pun intended). If the Texans can put last week behind them and get Foster going, they should be able to spoil Andre Johnson's Houston homecoming.
Prediction: Texans 24, Colts 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.