There are plenty of boxes the Houston Texans, as a franchise, still have to check off. Obviously, performing at a high level in the postseason is at the top of the list. They haven't done that yet, ever, so that's the clear number one. Routinely beating teams with good starting quarterbacks is certainly something that, coming into this season, was an issue, but with wins over Phillip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and Patrick Mahomes, the Deshaun Watson Era is in high gear when it comes to winning the QB battle.
If there's one thing that, over the course of their history, had been a real problem for the Texans that they seem to have conquered, it would be winning in Indianapolis against the Colts. For the first 13 seasons of their existence, the Texans were snakebitten in Indy, until 2015, they finally broke through when Brandon Weeden hit Jaelen Strong for the winning touchdown (just the exact two guys everyone predicted would do it, right?)....
Since that fateful day in 2015, the Texans went on to win two of the next three in Indy, both against Andrew Luck. Ironically, the one game they lost in Lucas Oil Stadium was in 2017 to this coming Sunday's Colts starter Jacoby Brissett. (Perhaps even more ironically, the Texans have literally never beaten Brissett, who is 2-0 against them as a Colts starting QB, and 1-0 against them as a Patriot.
Now, the Texans will try to do something they've never done before under Bill O'Brien — start a season with a 5-2 record. The Colts enter the game as a small favorite, the Texans enter the game riding a two game winning streak and the momentum of that win last week in Kansas City. Here are four things to watch for in the game this weekend...
4. The Texans kicking operation
If the game this Sunday is anything like last season's overtime thriller in Indianapolis, the kickers are going to be a factor. The Colts have grizzled veteran Adam Vinatieri, who I think is 100 years old next year. The Texans have Ka'imi Fairbairn, who has gone from trusted steward of all things field goals and extra points to a frightening liability. Against the Falcons two weeks ago, Fairbairn missed two extra points, and last week in Kansas City, he missed a field goal and PAT. In a game with a one point betting spread, literally every point matters. O'Brien held off on bringing any competition in this week for Fairbairn, instead citing the entire "kicking operation" as being in need of better focus and production. That's a subtle nod to the fact that new holder Bryan Anger might be somewhat culpable in the recent kicking swoon. Regardless, this CANNOT be an issue on Sunday.
3. The T.Y. Hilton Situation
We all remember last season's playoff game (a 21-7 Colts victory), before which Hilton showed up at NRG Stadium wearing a clown mask, in response to Texans CB Johnathan Joseph calling him a "clown." Well, Hilton got the last laugh that day, as he has most days he's suited up against the Texans. For his career, Hilton has played 14 games against the Texans and has 76 catches for 1,445 yards and nine touchdowns. In other words, in about the equivalent of an NFL regular season, Hilton has put up All-Pro numbers against the Texans. Unfortunately, the one guy on the Texans roster who might be able to handle Hilton one on one, Bradley Roby, is out with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for upwards of a month. Hilton is averaging under ten yards a catch this season, but does have four touchdowns.
2. Johnson and Hyde
I would never wish injury on anybody purely to make my football team better (bad karma to do so), and I wish Lamar Miller a speedy recovery, but it's hard to imagine this running game humming along any better with Miller as the featured back than it is with Carlos Hyde toting the rock with some Duke Johnson sprinkled in. The Texans are averaging 4.9 yards per carry, good for 6th in the NFL. On the flip side, the Colts rushing defense is a disaster, allowing 5.1 yards per carry (28th in the league), so the Texans having a balanced attack like their 472 yards against the Chiefs (190 rushing, 282 passing) seems highly likely. Hell, the Colts aren't all that good defending anything this season, as their pass defense is 29th in the league, as measured by opposing passer rating. On third down defensively, the Colts rank 26th in the league, while the Texans are the best offense in the NFL on third down (51.4 percent).
1. Another sack-less Sunday?
Amidst all those gaudy numbers the last couple weeks on offense for the Texans, perhaps the most remarkable is Deshaun Watson going two weeks without being sacked. Certainly, some of that is due to Watson making quicker decisions with the football and getting it out quickly, but the upgrade in sheer talent on the offensive line is paying big dividends. This time last season, the starting offensive line, from left to right, was Julien Davenport, Senio Kelemete, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, and Kendall Lamm. This season, Martin and Fulton are still there, but they've swapped out Davenport, Kelemete, and Lamm for Laremy Tunsil, Max Scharping, and Tytus Howard. (Howard tore his MCL against the Chiefs, and will be back later this season, so Roderick Johnson jumps in at right tackle.) Who knew that actually getting better players would help the situation in front of Deshaun Watson? Man, novel concept! In fact, NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger says that Tunsil is the best left tackle in football...
Keeping Watson clean one more week would be a welcome development, on the way to O'Brien's first ever 5-2 start.
SPREAD: Texans +1
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Colts 20
SEASON RECORD: 4-2 SU, 4-2 ATS