(Sports Network) – Having made the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons, the Indianapolis Colts are a model franchise for other teams to follow. The Houston Texans feel they are on that level, at least offensively.
The top two offenses from a season ago get together this Sunday at Reliant Stadium, as the Colts begin defense of their AFC championship against a Texans club that will carry a four-game winning streak dating back to last year into this matchup.
Led by quarterback Peyton Manning, who captured his fourth MVP award last year, the Colts ripped through the regular season in 2009, winning their first 14 games before dropping a pair of meaningless contests heading into the playoffs. They then won their first two postseason games under first-year head coach Jim Caldwell, knocking off the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets before falling to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
Indianapolis led the title game heading into halftime, but was outscored by New Orleans 25-7 in the second half to fall 31-17. The Colts have been itching to get back on the field ever since.
Indy opens up its season with three of its first four games on the road and draws a potentially tough Week 1 matchup in the Texans, who have their eyes set on knocking off a Colts team that has finished first in the AFC South in six of the past seven seasons.
This contest should feature some fireworks, as the Colts’ 282.2 passing yards per game ranked behind only the Texans (290.0) a season ago. Caldwell won’t take Houston lightly.
“I would anticipate it is going to be like it always is; a hard-fought battle that is going to take you 59 minutes and possibly 30 seconds to determine who is going to win that game,” said Caldwell. “It’s a division game, it’s a big game, it’s a road game for us and it’s a big game versus a tough opponent. It is big for both teams.”
It might be bigger for the Texans.
Tabbed as a playoff-caliber team last year, Houston suffered a back-breaking four-game slide from Nov. 8-Dec. 6, with all four losses coming against fellow AFC South residents. That led to a 1-5 mark against the division and a 9-7 overall record. Despite the nine victories being a franchise record and ending the season on a four-game win streak, Houston failed to reach the playoffs for the eighth time in its eight seasons as an NFL franchise.
While Houston’s offense should have tight end Owen Daniels in the mix for the first time since the budding star suffered a torn ACL in Week 8 of last year, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing will serve the first contest of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Cushing said it will be tough to watch his team play without him.
“There’s no question about it,” the linebacker said after the Texans’ final preseason game. “I mean, I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to watch it. You realize how much you love something when it’s taken away from you and like I said, I’ve just got to stay mentally prepared, stay as fresh as I can, and in Week 5 be the best player I can possibly be.”
The Colts are 15-1 all-time against the Texans, with the only loss a 27-24 result at Reliant Stadium in 2006. Indianapolis extended its winning streak in the series to six games with last year’s home-and-home sweep, including a 20-17 home win over Houston in Week 9 and a 35-27 victory at Reliant Stadium in Week 12.
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is 1-7 against the Colts in his career, while Caldwell is 2-0 against both Kubiak and Houston as a head coach.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts return essentially the same offense that terrorized defensive backs a year ago and featured four Pro Bowl selections. Manning (4500 passing yards, 33 TD, 16 INT) earned his 10th trip to the Pro Bowl and topped 4,000 yards passing for a fourth straight season, and he remains one of the best at his position. The 34-year-old has the luxury of throwing to a pair of Pro Bowl receivers in wide receiver Reggie Wayne (1264 receiving yards) and tight end Dallas Clark (1106 receiving yards), who both caught 100 balls and 10 touchdown passes a season ago. Manning’s other targets aren’t too shabby either, as both Austin Collie (60 receptions, 7 TD) and Pierre Garcon (47 receptions, 4 TD) took advantage of an injury to Anthony Gonzalez to post breakout seasons. Garcon is expected to start this game along with Wayne. Joseph Addai enters his fourth season as the starting running back, and his 828 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns paced a ground game that ranked last in the NFL a season ago with an average of 80.9 yards per game. Indy could be without one of its Pro Bowlers from a year ago, as center Jeff Saturday underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in the middle of August and might not be able to suit up for this game. Mike Pollak, owner of 20 career starts at guard, is listed behind Saturday on the depth chart.
Kareem Jackson, welcome to the NFL. Houston’s 2010 first-round pick steps into a starting role at cornerback immediately beside second-year pro Glover Quin (68 tackles). Those two figure to face a stiff test in this one, though the Texans hope that the drafting of Jackson 20th overall will help a defense that ranked 18th versus the pass a season ago. Strong safety Bernard Pollard (102 tackles, 4 INT) was a surprise in 2009 and offers support along with starting free safety Eugene Wilson (29 tackles, 2 INT). Cushing posted a monster year, compiling a team-high 133 tackles along with four sacks and four interceptions, and the Texans will miss the strongside linebacker the most of any of their first four games this week. They do still have middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans (123 tackles, 1 sack), perhaps one of the NFL’s most underrated players. Ends Mario Williams (43 tackles, 9 sacks) and Antonio Smith (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will need to try and pressure Manning, but won’t have much time to do so thanks to the quarterback’s quick release. Tackles Amobi Okoye (38 tackles) and Shaun Cody (21 tackles) will also need to create a push at the line.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Houston just might be able to match Manning and company punch for punch. The Texans are guided under center by Matt Schaub, a 2010 Pro Bowl selection who threw for an NFL-high 4,770 passing yards with 29 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions last year. His favorite target is fellow Pro Bowler Andre Johnson (101 receptions, 9 TD), who has gone over 100 receptions in three of his last four seasons and accounted for 1,569 receiving yards in 2009. If the Colts focus on shutting down Johnson, Schaub can look towards Daniels, who was headed towards a breakout season with 40 catches and five touchdowns prior to his injury. Kevin Walter (53 receptions, 2 TD) should also see some room on the field as the second wide receiver. Houston’s running game was only slightly better than that of Indy’s, averaging 92.2 yards per game to rank 30th in the NFL. Fumble problems by Steve Slaton (437 rushing yards, 3 TD) led to the running back losing his starting job last year before ultimately getting hurt, with replacement Arian Foster expected to start in this game. Foster had a good preseason and posted 216 rushing yards with three touchdowns over Houston’s final two games of last year. For the first time since the team’s inception, Kris Brown will not be kicking field goals for the Texans after he lost a preseason battle with ex-Cardinal Neil Rackers.
The Colts ranked in the middle of the pack last year versus the pass (14th overall), but ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have shined in the past versus Houston. Freeney (24 tackles, 13.5 sacks) has 12 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles in 14 career games against the Texans, while Mathis (37 tackles, 9.5 sacks) has 10 1/2 sacks and eight forced fumbles in 13 games in this series. That should put Schaub on notice. If the duo can’t get to the Houston quarterback, Indianapolis will look to a pair of players returning from injury to lend a hand. Strong safety Bob Sanders missed 10 games in 2008 and all but two last year due to knee and biceps injuries, but hopes to stay healthy this season. Starting corner Kelvin Hayden also missed eight games in 2009 due to injury, but 2009 third-round pick Jerraud Powers shined in his absence and notched 66 tackles with an interception. Indianapolis returns the same starting three at linebacker, as it re-signed middle man Gary Brackett (99 tackles, 1 sack) to play in between right-side starter Clint Session (103 tackles) and Philip Wheeler (61 tackles).
Both the Texans and Colts are full of fantasy-worthy starters. For the Colts, Manning, Wayne and Clark are all must-starts, and both receivers should get a fair number of looks from Manning, one of the top-five fantasy QB’s. Schaub could be right behind Manning in production, and both Johnson and Daniels need to be in starting lineups. Foster has looked good so far this year and could be one of 2010’s biggest surprises, while Addai owners will get their first look at how many carries handcuff Donald Brown is going to steal from the starter. Deeper leagues should also give No. 2 wideouts Garcon and Walter looks. Both defenses should be avoided given the number of offensive playmakers on the field, while Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri and counterpart Rackers should get plenty of chances to put the ball between the uprights.
In what could be the highest-scoring game in Week 1, this matchup could instead come down to which defense is able to push back the hardest. That edge goes to the Colts, who have more experience over a Texans club that will really miss Cushing. While Houston is trying to take the next step forward as a franchise, Indianapolis is all business and knows what is at stake, even in the opening week. Manning won’t let his team get off to a slow start. Ultimately, the Colts’ seasoning will win out over the Texans’ up-and-coming talent. Houston’s lone franchise win over Indianapolis did come at Reliant Stadium, but win No. 2 won’t go down this Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 31, Texans 24