This Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans game smells like 2011. That's not good for the Colts.
In that lost season, as Colts fans well remember, the AFC South champion, playoff-bound Texans came into Lucas Oil Stadium facing a flailing Colts team with a backup quarterback and one eye on the next NFL Draft.
The Colts won with a spectacular catch by great receiver Reggie Wayne on a pass from adequate backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky.
Roles are reversed this season. The 8-5 Colts have a playoff berth clinched. The 2-11 Texans have some thoughts of next year's draft pick.
And there's this: The flailing Texans have the great receiver (Andre Johnson) and an adequate backup quarterback (Case Keenum).
Tune in at 1 p.m. to see if it's tables-turned deja vu at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It's a division game, division rival, roster that's loaded with great talent," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "They're coming here to win a football game. They've got a ton of great football players. We all know that and so we'll prepare accordingly."
Houston comes in as an unpredictable opponent of sorts, having fired coach Gary Kubiak because of the dismal season and replaced him with interim coach Wade Phillips. For a team that was expected to be a Super Bowl contender, it's been a season of unrest in Houston.
The first game after a coaching change, particularly during a season, can lead to an above-average performance because of the fresh start of sorts.
Given the fact the Texans remain a team full of talented players, including the fantastic Johnson and a defense led by J.J. Watt that is ranked No.1 in the AFC in total defense, the Colts won't be facing a typical 2-11 team.
In the teams' first meeting at Houston on Nov. 3, the Colts came back from an 18-point halftime deficit to win 27-24. Kubiak collapsed at halftime and had to be taken to the hospital, a fact that some attributed to the Texans' less-effective second half.
Since that game, the Colts are 2-3 and the three losses have been by two touchdowns or more each time.
While the Texans have lost 11 straight games, the last seven have been by seven points or fewer.
This seems like a dangerous game for the Colts, especially with the defense playing poorly and the offense still erratic. They'll make the playoffs regardless of their final three games, but finishing strong with some wins could drastically change the locker room.
Houston has never won in Indianapolis.
"They are a dangerous team," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. "J.J. Watt's a premier player. They have two solid corners, a very stout front seven. We have our hands full. We know how dangerous they can be."
This will be a test perhaps unlike any other the Colts have faced under Pagano.
It will take a supreme effort to win, a more complete game than the Colts have played since October. A loss at home would then lead into a probable loss at Kansas City and the prospect would loom of finishing 8-8 considering the improvement of final opponent Jacksonville.
I'd disagree with those who say the Colts have backed into the playoffs. Any team with wins over San Francisco, Seattle and Denver has earned their way to 8-5. I'd agree, however, that the Colts are hardly the same team they were in those games, partly because of the absence of wide receiver Reggie Wayne, but also because of the less-explainable decline of the defense.
This Houston game will measure whether the Colts have it in them to gain some traction heading toward the postseason.
"Now we've got to catch the momentum, we've got to catch fire," Pagano said. "As Robert (Mathis) just said, we've got to 'strike the match' and catch fire and get the mojo going."
Here's something to consider: Johnson caught nine passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns in the team's first meeting. The Colts pass defense has not been the same since.
Colts cornerback Greg Toler remains out with a groin injury, so there will be no extra enforcements to deal with Johnson.
"You've got to put some roll coverage on him, you've got to make sure that you double him in certain situations," Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "Good football player. He's got a lot of catches. It's still a good football team we're facing this week."
On offense, the Colts need to build on the 28 second-half points they posted in their 42-28 loss at Cincinnati. That means follow-up production from receivers Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill who won't be able to surprise defenses anymore. The Texans have film to study on them, and it's possible some of their production was due to Cincinnati's defensive strategy with a big second-half lead.
Brazill suffered a foot injury in the Bengals game that could affect his playing time this Sunday, which would mean a return to more time for Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has been struggling, to say the least.
The Colts have found a way to win against their AFC South opponents this season, no matter how poorly they play, which might be more of an indictment against the rest of the division.
Houston's 2-11 record is an embarrassment to the Texans, who have no business being that bad.
Still, losing to Houston could devastate the Colts in a season in which they've been stumbling the entire second half. The Colts must hope the phrase "Keenum-to-Johnson" doesn't lead the highlights Sunday night.
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