For the 16 previous seasons in which the AFC South has existed, since the Houston Texans became a thing, the division has never seen two of its teams face off in the postseason, which is probably attributable to two things — (1) Peyton Manning's decade long dominance making it hard for two teams to even get into the postseason from the division, and (2) post-Manning, there were seasons that really NO team from the division deserved to make it.
Now, here we are, all roads leading to NRG Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and the Indianapolis Colts come to town for the first ever playoff matchup of AFC South teams, a rubber match in a season where the two teams split the regular season tilts. Each team was victorious on the other team's home field, so we know the moment and venue won't be too big for the Colts. My biggest question before kickoff is "What will the crowd be like? How energized will they be?"
This year has had a subdued "wait and see" feel to it, even with a nine game winning streak, perhaps triggered by the scars of the team's 0-3 start. The city's juice level is not at a "10" for this team, despite having a franchise quarterback that should be leading us to January football for a long, long time. J.J. Watt touched on this in his media session this week:
“Well, obviously, there were different circumstances back then. My rookie year we made the playoffs for the first time ever in program history, which has a whole different set of things that comes along with it than what we’re doing now. Then, my second year, I think we were 12-4 and we went back. Back then it was like we were really, really excited to make the playoffs and I think there was a bit of Beatlemania going on around here. Everybody’s so jacked up, and it was awesome. Trust me, I loved every single second of it. It was incredible. I had a blast. I’m not saying the teams are different, I think it’s just a different feeling. It’s just a different feeling around, whether it’s the stadium or it’s the fans or whatever it is, I don’t really know how to describe it, but, it’s different. I had a blast. I loved it. Those guys were great back then. We had an unbelievable time and we had a good team. We had a really good team. We had a lot of great players on that team, and we have a lot of great players on this team. There’s a lot of things that we want to accomplish and we want to do, so hopefully we can create some Beatlemania again.”
It's the playoffs, so hopefully, the crowd comes heavy on Saturday at 3:35 p.m., but even after the Texans clinched the division at home last weekend, it felt like just another win. Is it quasi-apathy or grand expectations? I don't even know if we will find out (or if it even matters), I just hope the Texans win.
With that said, here are my things to watch for this weekend in the game:
4. Return of Keke
Here is all you need to know about where we are with Deshaun Watson's weapons on the outside — Coutee is a rookie, who played in all or part of six games this season, and with his likely return (Bill O'Brien calls him a "game time" decision, which makes this the most highly anticipated "inactive list unveiling" on the Texans pregame show, which I cohost, this season) he will immediately become the second leading receiver in that group with 28 career catches. Here's the good news with Coutee — (1) he tore up the Colts in his pro debut with 11 catches, (2) he can get open quickly, has great hands, is tough as nails after the catch, and should open things up for Deshaun, and (3) in the four games he DIDN'T leave with a hamstring injury, he averaged six catches for 67 yards. Here's the bad news with Coutee — he's pulled his hamstring THREE times since training camp began, and the next step is for his leg to spontaneously combust. Coutee on the field helps in the passing game, as well as the tricky stuff they like to do with Deshaun running run-pass option stuff. Coutee's jet sweep action, and presence as a pitch option are HUGE if he's healthy, given the difficulty this team has running the ball between the tackles conventionally.
3. The T.Y. Conundrum
Here we go, Colts game ritual, the part where we guzzle the castor oil that is the T.Y. Hilton career stat line against the Texans. So here we go — 14 games, 76 catches, 1,445 yards, 9 touchdowns, and numerous back breaking downfield plays, including a 60 yarder in the Week 13 matchup that swung the game. O'Brien essentially conceded this week that you can't really stop Hilton, you can only hope to contain him. (Honestly, the bigger concern for the Texans might be tight end Eric Ebron in the red zone, but I digress.) Romeo Crennel needs to figure out two things — (1) how to limit Hilton's EXPLOSIVE plays, underneath stuff is whatever, and (2) making sure the Colts' guys-not-named-Hilton don't have productive days. Win the two games this season, Luck has thrown for 863 yards. You don't pile that up throwing to one guy. Dudes like Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers, and RB Nyheim Hines out of the backfield (MAJOR pain in the ass) can't go get 60 to 70 yards, or make big third down conversions, like they have in the two games this season. Some of shutting them down will come down to....
2. Getting to Luck
This is a huge game for J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, especially Clowney, who figures to make a big contractual statement with a productive postseason. Everything we've been saying about Deshaun Watson on the offensive side of the football carrying the Texans applies to these two on the defensive side. Yeah, I expect Crennel to have some new disguised coverage packages and blitzes, but Watt and Clowney HAVE to get home their fair share of times in this game. Luck, for all of his greatness this season, has still thrown at least one pick in six of the last eight games. (Deshaun Watson by comparison has thrown NONE in nine of his last ten games.) The game may come down to turnovers, and the Texans have forced at least one in their last 13 games, and multiple turnovers in eight of those games. They will need to win that turnover battle to win this game.
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1. Deshaun Watson, Big Game Master
There are positive attributes with which Deshaun Watson came into the NFL — an underrated arm, athleticism, an uncanny knack for big plays at big times, and universal respect from his peers. Then there were the things he needed to work on (not many), and the biggest one was ball security. A ten game sample (the most recent ten games) in which he's thrown an interception in just ONE of those games is a pretty reliable chunk to handicap where he is as a pro in that area. Deshaun has added a self awareness to all of the other next-level traits, and he's now one of the most dangerous players in the postseason. If Week 17 is any indicator, you can go ahead and add "fulcrum of the Texans' running game" to his duties, as he carried the ball 11 times in that game on RPO's or designed runs. For weeks, we've been saying that the Texans need to lean on Deshaun to have any chance to win in the postseason, and the best news you can get, if you're a Texans fan, is that O'Brien clearly agrees.
I've gone back and forth all week on who I'm picking in this game. The Colts are the better all around team right now, largely because of their offensive line, but I wouldn't forgive myself if I picked against Watson and he won this game for this city. I will ride with my quarterback....
SPREAD: Texans -1
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Colts 24
RECORD: 10-6 SU, 7-9 ATS
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.