Playoff implications are high as divisional foes face off on TNF
Rarely is "Thursday Night Football" must-see television, but this week's episode should be appointment viewing as the Indianapolis Colts head to Houston to take on the Houston Texans. The Colts and Texans, both 6-4, are tied for the top spot in the AFC South after Indy's thumping of Jacksonville and Houston's disastrous performance against the Ravens. Needless to say, the playoff implications on the line are of the utmost importance for both teams.
It was only a month ago that these two teams met in the Circle City and Jacoby Brissett had his best career outing. Brissett dissected the Texans' defense by throwing for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-26 win, the Colts' fourth in the teams' last five meetings. Deshaun Watson and company will try to even the season series at a game apiece and take a full game lead over their division rival on short rest.
Indianapolis at Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 21 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Houston -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Missing Marlon Mack
Looking at last week's box score, you’d almost forget that Colts star receiver T.Y. Hilton was missing in action, thanks to Mack and the running game trampling the Jaguars for 264 yards at 7.3 per attempt. Mack finished the game with 109 yards and one heck of a 13-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter, but the feel-goodery was short-lived as Mack exited in the third quarter with a hand fracture.
Mack underwent surgery on Monday, and although the injury isn't expected to be season-ending, he will most definitely miss Thursday's contest against a Houston defense that allowed a near-franchise-record (the wrong kind) 263 rushing yards against Baltimore last week. Receiving the bulk of Mack's touches will likely be Jonathan Williams. Williams, a fourth-year back from Arkansas, entered last week's game with one yard to his name on the season but added 116 more by day's end on just 13 carries. He will likely split time with Nyheim Hines, who comes into Thursday night with just 25 carries for 77 yards, but has been a bigger presence in the passing game (30 rec., 242 yds.).
With no Mack and Hilton's status uncertain, look for head coach Frank Reich to get creative to pick up yards against the Texans' D.
2. Houston's O-line troubles back?
The Texans' offensive line is like a bad ex. Just when you think they've changed for the better, they can't hold their blocks and your heart gets broken all over again — except last week it was Deshaun Watson who needed a healing pint of ice cream and a good hug, not you. After a rough first two weeks, Houston's front line seemed to have fixed their oft-covered protection issues, as Watson was only sacked seven times in five games. It was no coincidence that the Texans won four of those five games and Watson threw his way into the MVP conversation.
Just when we were ready to welcome back our former significant other back into our hearts, the O-line allowed the Ravens' mediocre pass rush (23 sacks, 23rd in the NFL) sack Watson seven times with 10 total quarterback hits. Sunday's 41-7 thud was the seventh time in the last two seasons that defenses have gotten to Watson six or more times. Sure, we should have known better, and Watson held on to the ball too long at times, but the Texans' O-line promised they had changed!
With Laremy Tunsil still nursing an injured shoulder that caused him to miss two games this season already, look for Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to unleash on Houston's weary line.
3. The playoff picture
The following won’t have to do with Thursday night's X's and O's so much as it has to do with the implications of the game's outcome and the bigger playoff picture at hand in the AFC. There might not be a more impactful game to the greater playoff picture for the rest of the season than this game.
It’s simple. If the Colts win to sweep the season series against Houston, they'll lead the AFC South by a game over the Texans. An Indy win will also give the Colts the tiebreaker advantage against Houston, putting them in the driver's seat toward hosting a home playoff game and possibly setting up a rematch of last year's Wild Card Weekend game against the Texans as well... depending on how the AFC West shakes out between the Chiefs and Raiders.
Still with me?
Now, if the Texans win, things get a little more complicated. In that case, they would hold the tiebreaker advantage over Indy based on their two-game advantage against common opponents (Chargers, Raiders) and records against AFC opponents (6-2 vs. 5-5), despite both teams have the same record against divisional foes (3-1) and splitting the season series. A Houston win would also badly damage the Colts' chances of attaining a wild-card spot, as they would lose a different tiebreaker between the Raiders and Steelers.
One team (Indianapolis) is riding high after a huge divisional win but remains short-handed offensively, while another (Houston) is feeling battered after taking a beating from the hottest team in the NFL. And both teams are on an obnoxiously short week. For me, Thursday night comes down to how Deshaun Watson rebounds from Sunday’s 169-yards-and-a-pick performance against a middling Baltimore defense. If we see the Watson that was playing at an MVP level a few weeks ago, Houston could take advantage of a limping Colts offense.
Prediction: Texans 22, Colts 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.