Wild-card breakdown: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
When the Colts have the ball: Indianapolis led the NFL on third down and in fewest sacks allowed and ranked in the top seven in passing, scoring and yards. Comeback Player of the Year honors could come down to Andrew Luck (career-high 67.3 completion percentage and 98.7 passer rating) and J.J. Watt (16 sacks, 7 forced fumbles), both having rediscovered their best form after career-threatening injuries.
Helping make Luck successful are Indy’s dramatically improved O-line (league-low 18 sacks allowed) and run game spearheaded by rookie LG Quenton Nelson and lead RB Marlon Mack. With a robust 4.7-yard rush average and 100-yard game in all four starts in which he received at least 18 carries, including in Sunday’s clincher in Nashville, Mack and that O-line have changed the offensive identity.
Watt is surrounded by game-wreckers up front in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus and productive inside backers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham, but Houston’s secondary is susceptible, even with CB Kareem Jackson and S Tyrann Mathieu playing well.
Colts head coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni have shown creativity and used a lot of personnel packages, consistently finding ways to scheme Pro Bowlers T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron open. Texans DC Romeo Crennel’s unit has been nearly impenetrable against the run (No. 1 in yards per rush) but just allowed Nick Foles to throw for an Eagles-record 471 yards alongside four touchdowns.
When the Texans have the ball: Deshaun Watson was marvelous in his second season, particularly down the stretch. Since Week 12 he’s totaled 12 touchdowns (eight passing, four rushing) and only one turnover. And in the red zone this season, he’s tallied 24 combined TDs and zero interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback has one of the game’s top three receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, who led the AFC with 115 catches — without a single drop — but few additional experienced receivers.
Houston has struggled to consistently run the ball (19th in yards per rush despite Watson’s 5.6-yard average) and failed miserably to protect Watson, who absorbed 62 sacks — tied for the fifth-most in NFL history. Bill O’Brien’s club did welcome Lamar Miller back Sunday from a knee injury, and he looked fresh, albeit averaging less than four yards a pop for the seventh game this season.
The Colts’ resurgent ‘D’ under first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus is led by Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Darius Leonard, the long and rangy playmaking outside linebacker with absurd production (seven sacks, four INTs, three FFs and an NFL-best 163 tackles). The task of covering Hopkins will fall on CBs Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore, with help from second-year CB Quincy Wilson and safety Malik Hooker. NT Margus Hunt spearheads a stout run ‘D’ ranked sixth in average per carry.
Special teams: The Colts have an excellent kicking operation with future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri and P Rigoberto Sanchez (42.7-yard net average), and their coverage is similarly reliable. Houston’s duo of second-year kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (NFL-best 37 FGs made) and rookie punter Trevor Daniel is promising but unproven.
Coaching: The turning point in the Colts’ season was Reich’s Week 4 decision in Houston to eschew an overtime punt on fourth-and-4 in Indy territory, going for the win. Luck’s pass fell incomplete, and the Colts subsequently fell 37-34 on a game-winning field goal. But it showed a rookie head coach’s belief in his young team, which become only the third ever to reach the playoffs following a 1-5 start.
Of course, O’Brien’s team is no stranger to comebacks. Houston’s 11-2 finish following an 0-3 start is tied with the 1992 L.A. Chargers for the NFL’s best since 1990.
Prediction: The Colts might not have the pass rush to fully exploit Houston’s porous O-line, but they have the protection and pass-game prowess to hurt the Texans’ vulnerable secondary. Luck and Watson have both thrived on the biggest stages, but it’s Luck who’s better supported and won’t have to press despite going on the road on a short week.
Colts 27, Texans 23