It wasn’t meant to be this way.
Going into 2019, both the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts were supposed to be contenders. Both equipped with the quarterbacks and weapons to challenge for the Superbowl.
Andrew Luck retired, Jacoby Brissett started well, but injuries meant in 2019 Brian Hoyer was able to call himself a starting QB in the NFL.
Despite improving their running game, injuries on both sides of the ball depleted the Texans and even Deshaun Watson’s heroics haven’t been enough to see them dominate the division.
Both teams have stuttered to 6-4, and Thursday is going to be a huge moment in the road to the AFC playoffs.
With Brissett back, the visitors’ air game will also be boosted by the return of T.Y Hilton to the receiving corps. The wide receiver hasn’t played since Week 8, but he practiced on Wednesday, and he’d love nothing more to make a return against their AFC South rivals.
Which is bad news for the Texans.
Although they are much improved against tight ends this season, conceding three TDs compared to eight last term, it’s deeper down the pitch where Houston have had their problems.
In 11 games, they have been hit for 14 touchdowns against wide receivers. Only five teams have conceded more, which puts them in the same conversation as the Jets, Giants, Dolphins and the Buccaneers.
Amazingly, the Colts have allowed only five fewer completions to WRs, but their opponents have only managed seven touchdowns. The Texans too often have been hit over the top, their secondary failing time after time, which opens the door to a receiver like Hilton.
In 15 games against Thursday’s opponent, the 30-year-old has 10 touchdowns and averages over 101 yards per appearance.
This has been a weird campaign for the Colts. They’ve beaten the Chiefs and the Texans, but lost to the Dolphins. Last week’s 33-13 win over another divisional rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the first time this season they weren’t involved in a one-score game.
Reeling from the beating the Baltimore Ravens handed them, the Texans have a lot to prove if they are going to be a main player in the AFC playoffs. This is the perfect bounce back game, especially as they might also have a speedy receiver back in the shape of Will Fuller – although he is still listed as questionable.
As Bill O’Brien welcomes players back, the Colts are dealing with the hand injury to starting back Marlon Mack. Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Willams will make up the committee backfield, but it remains to be seen if all three can replace the impact their starter has had in their gameplan.
Rushes of 20+ yards in 2019:
Lamar Jackson – 8 (115 carries)
Nick Chubb – 8 (201 carries)
Marlon Mack – 7 (192 carries)
Josh Jacobs – 7 (191 carries)
Ezekiel Elliott – 1 (194 carries)
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 19, 2019
Ranked fourth in the NFL in terms of running yards per game, without Mack’s 86.2 yards per game, meaning they will have to rely on their receivers or pass catching backs to trouble the Texans D.
It is unlikely this game will get away from either side, the Colts edge it on the defensive side, but in attack the home side are better balanced. You would trust Watson more than Brissett to go long if chasing the game, but Darius Leonard & Co. will fancy picking him off too.
Likely to be in the balance all the way to the end of the fourth, the Colts are more than capable to stay within a field goal.
When playing at NRG stadium, Watson and his offence have struggled to put up points in 2019. Only twice have they scored over 20 points, and one of them was against the ghost of the Atlanta Falcons.
And for the visitors, every big score they put up, like last week, the next week they are held for under 20. The Dolphins won 16-12, the Broncos held them to 13, even when they beat the Chiefs the score was 19-13.
The most they have managed on the road is 24 points, twice. Yet, with Brissett back in the saddle and their best receiver back, plus the Texans secondary unlikely to stay locked down, Thursday is unlikely to be a low scoring affair.
Watson and DeAndre Hopkins will want to take the opportunity of a short week to banish thoughts of their 41-7 tanking from Lamar Jackson and put some points on the board.
They both average over 22 points per game on offence, and concede over 20 on defence. It will be close, but expect both teams to put on a show.