The Texans have teased us before with terrific starts against the Colts, but this Sunday it will be about how they finish. Gone is Kris Brown, gone is Chris Brown, gone is Khris Brown, who I just made up. Anyway, the main point: in year five of the Kubiak era there are absolutely no excuses left. Everything has been tweaked on both sides of the ball to how the coaches like it, and just about everyone important will be on the field for the Texans on Sunday outside of Brian Cushing. Cushing's absence will be lessened, however, because Zac Diles is just as good a coverage linebacker as Cushing is, and the Texans will probably wind up playing just two linebackers most of the game against the Colts as matchups dictate the nickel against Indy's base three wide receiver package.
This game is right in the Texans wheelhouse, and I think it's probably the best chance the Texans have had to beat Indy yet. Start throwing around the "Biggest Game In Franchise History," proclamations (like they matter), because this is it (again).
Most Important Stat - Turnover Margin
Common knowledge says that the best way to beat Peyton Manning is to dominate time of possession. This has been chirped at us time and time again by numerous sources. The problem with the wisdom is that it just doesn't match the results on the field. The Texans outpossessed the Colts last year 35-25 in their first meeting last year, and 31-28 in the second. In addition, the prosecution would like to introduce this game to the jury. The Dolphins outpossessed the Colts a whopping 45-15 and STILL gave up 27 points.
In all three of those games, the Texans (and Dolphins) piled up yards and outgained the Colts. There's just one place they lost in the box score: the turnover battle. The Colts got one more turnover than the other team in each game and used that, combined with an offense that is dangerous no matter how much time is left on the clock, to win the game.
Now, you'll hear about how important turnover margin is all the time, it's not a complicated stat by any means. But against a team that scores at will like the Colts have for the past decade or so, it's doubly important. Every time you keep them from getting the ball, they lose a chance to put that efficient offense to work. To that end, the Texans need to play a very clean game on Sunday. None of Matt Schaub's patented "throw the ball to Andre Johnson in triple coverage" downfield prayers, no pickoffs returned for a touchdown, no missed field goals, and for the love of God, no fumbles. We've all had enough of those. Play clean football.
To that end, since that Indy offense is so dominant that they're probably going to score on this defense anyway, how about a surprise onside kick or two? It certainly worked for New Orleans in the Super Bowl, and it's not like the Texans are risking a whole lot considering how Rackers rarely manages a touchback at this point in his career.
Most Important Matchup - Duane Brown vs. Dwight Freeney
I just got done telling you that the turnover margin was extremely important, right? Well, the Indy defense is terribly basic. They run a Cover 2 most of the time, they play a lot of zone, they bend but don't break. The difference between what they'll be doing on Sunday and what the Texans have been doing on defense is a) Matt Schaub, as great as he is, is no Peyton Manning when it comes to feeling pocket pressure and b) The Colts defense routinely gets pressure on their four man fronts.
Dwight Freeney is a monster, there's no doubting that. If it's possible for a consistently great NFL pass rusher to be underrated, he does it, playing under Manning's shadow. Because of how important keeping Schaub clean is, I'd love to see Joel Dreessen come in early and often on the early downs and double up on Freeney. This is Brown's make or break year. He was horrendous in 2008, bad in 2009, and this is the year we figure out if he takes the step towards respectability or not. His first good game against Freeney would certainly send a message to the fanbase that he is beginning to pay dividends.
Most Important Decision - How Will Frank Bush Generate Pass Rush?
Because of the array of weapons that Peyton Manning and the Colts have, it's almost impossible to blitz them successfully. He's in the shotgun, he's going to audible when he reads the blitz that will kill him, and the Texans run such a basic package that theres no way he won't be able to pick up on it.
If last year's games are any indication of the strategy of this years, the Texans will wind up rushing four most often and letting Peyton Manning find the underneath route. My suggestion is to bring on the third down line from the get-go and just sell-out on trying to rush the passer. What's the worst case scenario of this? That the Colts run the ball more often? I'd be glad to see it. At least the Texans would be taking them out of their element at that point.
The Colts offensive line is beat up, and to repeat myself from the post I just linked:
There were 10 pressures and 5 sacks (counting plays nullified by penalty) in 102 dropbacks.
Those numbers need to double for the Texans to succeed
That also means that last season's patented "pressure followed by a Texans defensive lineman falling to the ground pitifully and not actually doing anything" package needs to be put away. When there is pressure, get the sack. Especially since the Colts offensive line looks to be pretty dinged up right now.
Look for an up and down football game as the two sides essentially mirror each other. The Colts will spread things out, the Texans will keep things narrow, but both offenses should have the right of way in Houston as the defenses keep everything in front of them. The game is won on turnovers, pressure, and penalties.
Most of my ingrained "1-15" emotion seems to lean towards the Colts winning. However, I think this game stacks up very well for the Texans. There is a reason they've played the scores so close the last few years: the Colts offense-Texans defense matchup is a good one for the Texans because the weaknesses of the defense aren't exploited. There are no surprises with the Colts (i.e. not many chances to overpursue), and the Colts offensive line isn't powerful enough to really get a push against the limited interior line of the Texans on the few plays that the Colts actually decide they want to run the ball.
A large segment of people will pick the Colts to win this game because of a perceived lack of mental toughness by the Texans. Don't join that group. They were a fumble-crossed squad last year, and the coaches could prepare the players a little better (like say, for the no-huddle offense that the Colts always stomp the Texans with), but this team has won just as many close games as any other. A pick against the Texans is a pick that says the Colts are either a better team schematically or a markedly better team on talent. I don't see either being the case.
And thus, in a close shootout, the Texans, with homefield giving them a boost, will knock off the Colts on Sunday, 30-27.