The first NFL playoff game of 2018 pits a pair of AFC South rivals against each other Saturday afternoon when the division champion Houston Texans host the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium. The Texans won the division title for the third time in four seasons and for the fifth time in franchise history since entering the league in 2002.
In the previous four occasions, they have hosted a wild-card game, Houston (11-5) has gone 3-1, losing only in 2015 to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Texans bounced back from a 4-12 season as second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson showed no ill-effects from the torn ACL that ended a promising rookie season and was once more a dual threat both passing and running.
After missing all of 2017, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had a redemption tale of his own this season in guiding Indianapolis (10-6) to its first postseason appearance since 2014. First-year coach Frank Reich got the best out of Luck, evolving his offensive game plan as his signal-caller grew healthier each week, and the Colts charged into the playoffs by winning their final four games.
There was not much in the way of home-field advantage in the two regular-season meetings as the road team emerged with three-point wins in both contests. Watson threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-34 overtime win at Indianapolis in Week 4, leading the Texans on two scoring drives in the extra period after the Colts — who got 464 passing yards and four TD tosses from Luck — took an early lead.
Luck had another 399 passing yards and two scores in Indianapolis’ 24-21 victory at Houston in Week 14. The Colts took control with a 17-point second-quarter, and Luck’s TD toss to Zach Pascal late in the third quarter provided a 10-point bulge Watson and the Texans could not overcome.
The line opened with the Texans as two-point favorites and quickly climbed one-half point in their favor. The over/under opened at 47.5 points and has held there in the early going.
(get ready for full update with pick, quotes, videos and more on Friday)
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Indianapolis Colts Review
The Colts (10-6) were an unknown quantity when the season began. They had a new coach in Reich, and no one was sure what to make of Luck’s lengthy rehabilitation from his labrum issues. His rehab continued well into preseason, with each progressive step reported on breathlessly as he went from throwing small footballs to larger ones to college footballs to eventually NFL ones.
Indianapolis was hamstrung to a degree offensively in the early season because Reich either did not want Luck throwing deep balls, or Luck could not throw them at that point. He threw for 319 yards in the season opener, a 34-23 loss to Cincinnati, but what caught everyone’s attention was the 6.02 yards per attempt.
As Luck progressed each week, Indianapolis’ defense stumbled out of the gate as the Colts opened the season 1-5. There was a three-week stretch against New England, Houston and the New York Jets in which Indianapolis was torched for 117 points and allowed 996 passing yards and seven TDs through the air.
The turning point of the season came in Week 8, when the Colts rallied to defeat the Oakland Raiders 42-28 with 21 fourth-quarter points and Marlon Mack cemented his status as the No. 1 running back. Indianapolis won seven of its final eight games, with the lone slip-up a 6-0 defeat at Jacksonville in Week 13 when the Colts came away empty on two trips inside the red zone and committed two turnovers.
They clinched a playoff spot in the final NFL regular-season game Sunday night, winning 33-17 at Tennessee. Luck threw three TD passes and kept the chains moving as the Colts held the ball for more than 40 minutes. Mack rushed for 119 yards and sealed the win with an 8-yard scoring run with 2:24 left.
Houston Texans Review
The Texans (11-5) are just the sixth team in NFL history since 1980 to reach the playoffs after starting the season 0-3. Unlike the Colts, the issue of relying too much on Watson proved problematic early on as Houston lost all three of those games by seven or fewer points. Watson was responsible for four of the five turnovers committed in those games.
Houston’s Week 4 overtime win at Indianapolis kept the season from going off the rails — the Texans led throughout that contest and were ahead by 11 points with less than eight minutes to play before the Colts rallied and scored the tying points on a two-point conversion in the final minute of regulation.
Jonathan Joseph’s pass breakup on a 4th-and-4 in overtime gave the Texans one last chance to avoid a tie, and Watson delivered a 24-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins that set up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning field goal.
That victory triggered a franchise-record nine-game winning streak during which Fairbairn delivered three game-winning or go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Texans also had to overcome the season-ending knee injury to wide receiver Will Fuller V in their Week 8 win over Miami.
The Texans acquired Demaryius Thomas right before the trade deadline, and the veteran wide receiver had 23 catches for 275 yards in seven games for the Texans before tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 16. Rookie wideout Keke Coutee could make his return in this game after missing the last five games of the season with a hamstring injury, with DeAndre Carter currently Watson’s second-best option behind Hopkins, who finished with 115 catches for 1,572 yards and 11 TDs.
Running the Ball: Who Has the Edge?
Indianapolis Colts Rushing Offense
For all the talk around the return of Luck and all the positives he brings to Indianapolis’ offense, it should also be noted the Colts posted a 7-1 record when they rushed for 100 or more yards.
Yet there is a substantial disconnect when it comes to the Colts ground game against the Texans. They totaled just 91 yards in the two meetings this season — 64 when Luck’s rushing yards are subtracted. Indianapolis had a 38/62 run/pass split during the regular season but a 31/69 split versus Houston, and the Colts ran the ball only 17 times in 83 plays in their Week 14 win at NRG Stadium.
That is not to say they completely abandoned the ground game versus the Texans — Mack sat out the first game due to an injury and was held to 33 yards on 14 carries in the second, with his longest run going for seven yards. Almost as if to prove a point to themselves in their regular-season finale, the Colts turned to Mack and he responded with his fourth 100-yard game as Indianapolis defeated Tennessee.
Mack accounted for 325 of Indianapolis’ 435 rushing yards in its season-ending four-game winning streak and rolled up a season-high 139 against one of the top defensive teams in the league in Dallas in Week 15.
When it comes to Houston, however, it appears to be a two-fold issue. One is the Texans have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, especially up the middle where Mack went with more than 40 percent of his carries. But two is the recognition by Reich the Colts can move the ball almost at will against them via the pass, which also fatigues Texans bookend rushers Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to a degree.
The good news is the Colts expect to have center Ryan Kelly back after he missed the season finale with a neck injury suffered against the New York Giants in Week 16. This can only help the Colts, who will likely try to at least plow Mack into the middle a few times to keep the Texans’ defense honest and the heat off Luck.
Houston Texans Rushing Defense
Though the Texans have had success in terms of stopping the run in both games against the Colts, Watt is not taking anything for granted heading into Round 3.
“Mack is a good back, and obviously, they have an offensive line,” Watt told reporters Tuesday
. “In our first game against them, I think there were like 61 passes or something like that. You have to be able to stop the run.”
Houston has held its last five opponents under 100 yards while giving up just 2.55 yards per rush on 101 carries in that span. The Texans recorded 15 tackles for losses in those games compared to seven rushes of 10 or more yards.
The only noticeable weakness in terms of running direction is when teams try to turn the corner on the left side, where Houston’s opponents have averaged 4.9 yards per carry — a stark contrast to their 3.4 overall rushing average. As the above clip shows, trying to pound the Texans though the middle is an exercise in futility as teams have averaged just 2.4 yards per rush between the guards on 141 carries.
Notable Rushing Statistics
Indianapolis Colts Offense
Indianapolis Colts — 1,718 net rushing yards (20th)
107.4 net rushing yards per game (20th)
408 carries (17th)
25.5 carries per game (17th)
4.21 yards per carry (22nd)
13 rushing TDs (T-16th)
Marlon Mack — 195 carries/908 yards/4.66 yards per carry/9 TDs
Jordan Wilkins — 60/336/5.6/1
Nyheim Hines — 85/314/3.69/2
Andrew Luck — 46/148/3.22/0
Robert Turbin — 4/10/2.5/0
Zach Pascal — 2/10/5.0/0
Christine Michael — 2/9/4.5/0
Jeremy McNichols — 2/4/2.0/0
Marcus Johnson — 1/-2/-2.0/0
Chester Rogers — 1/-4/-4.0/0
Jacoby Brissett — 7/-7/-1.0/0
Eric Ebron — 3/-8/-2.67/1
Houston Texans Defense
Houston Texans — 1,323 net rushing yards allowed (3rd)
82.7 net rushing yards allowed per game (3rd)
385 opponent carries (9th)
24.1 opponent carries per game (9th)
3.44 opponent yards per carry (1st)
8 opponent rushing TDs (3rd)
Benardrick McKinney — 63 solo/42 assist/105 total/5 TFL
Zach Cunningham — 73/32/105/3
Tyrann Mathieu — 70/19/89/5
Kareem Jackson — 70/17/87/5
Justin Reid — 64/17/81/2
J.J. Watt — 47/14/61/18
Johnathan Joseph — 49/9/58/1
Jadeveon Clowney — 38/9/47/16