The Indianapolis Colts have exceeded even the wildest of expectations this season.
The departure of Peyton Manning? A rookie quarterback and a young roster overall, working against a salary cap strapped with dead money? The Colts’ task was daunting entering the season.
And then, three weeks in, the team’s new head coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukemia and would miss most of the season while undergoing treatment (Pagano is in remission and could return to the sideline Dec. 30).
Anyone would have understood if this young squad had won just four games, and five or six wins would have been considered good given the circumstances.
But no. These “ChuckStrong” Colts (9-4) remarkably have showed grit and determination late in games, led by their sensational signal-caller, Andrew Luck; they amazingly stand one win away from clinching a playoff spot and control their own destiny for the AFC South title, the first of two crucial matchups with the Houston Texans (11-2) occurring at 1 p.m. today at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
At one point this season, the AFC-leading Texans appeared to be the most complete team in the NFL. Their 3-4 defense was suffocating, and defensive end J.J. Watt was on a rampage en route to recording his current season statistics of 16.5 stats and 15 passes defensed. On the other side, Arian Foster has amassed his third straight 1,000-yard season rushing with 14 rushing touchdowns, albeit at a more modest 3.9 yards per carry. While Watt remains a game wrecker and the leading candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, the Texans have begun to show some chinks in their armor.
The outside pass rush and secondary have struggled, not just against some of the game’s best quarterbacks, but also against some much less heralded names. The Texans allowed Aaron Rodgers to throw six touchdown passes in a home loss to the Green Bay Packers and let Tom Brady throw all over them in Foxborough; these games are Houston’s two losses. That’s understandable. What was far less foreseeable was how easily some division foes have passed on the Texans.
Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne went 16-of-33 for 354 yards and four touchdowns at Houston on Nov. 18, getting Jacksonville up two scores before the Texans won in overtime. The Titans’ Jake Locker threw for 309 yards on Houston two weeks ago. If this is any indicator of how AFC South quarterbacks generally play against the Texans, that has to bode well for Luck.
While Luck’s statistics haven’t been the prettiest in his rookie season — he’s completed just 54.9 percent of his passes and thrown 18 interceptions along with 18 touchdown passes for a quarterback rating of 74.5 — he’s been money in the clutch. Luck has led six game-winning drives this year, and that is the biggest reason the Colts are 9-4 (two of them included an exclamatory home win against Green Bay the weekend after Pagano’s diagnosis and a furious comeback at Detroit in which Luck made two scores in the final three minutes).
Luck can have success through the air if he has enough time to throw. But that’s going to be the big issue. Not only is Watt on the other end; the Colts will be without two starting offensive linemen along what is already a line sorely lacking in talent. Starting right tackle Winston Justice and starting center Samson Satele did not travel with the team and will be replaced by Jeff Linkenbach and A.Q. Shipley, respectively. While Shipley isn’t really much of a downgrade from Satele at all, starting Linkenbach at right tackle opposite Watt should make any Colts fan extremely nervous. Luck is likely to be running for his life again; fortunately, he can make things happen on his feet. He’ll need to.
The Colts defense, meanwhile, always has struggled to contain Foster on the ground, and any success he has will open things up for quarterback Matt Schaub and the Texans’ passing game. The scheme and personnel in Indy are different, but the result has not been much better; the Colts allow an average of 4.7 yards per carry. They also do not rush the passer with much frequency in this new scheme (a sign that long-time Colt Dwight Freeney likely will be gone after the season), so it looks like the Colts’ chances today again will boil down to Luck.
He’s done it before, though. If the Colts can pull out a third road victory, they have only to beat the Kansas City Chiefs on the road and then the Texans at home (with Pagano on the sideline and the Colts going for the division, can you imagine the crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium?), and somehow, incredibly, the division title will be theirs.