This might look like a one-sided affair on paper, but recent history between the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts suggests it should be a close one. Indianapolis currently holds an 18-4 lead in the all-time series between these two division foes, but they have split the season series in each of the past three years.
Coming into this Week 9 contest, the two teams are on different paths. While the Colts are 5-2 with a two-game lead over the Tennessee Titans for first place in the AFC South, the Texans have lost five in a row. Still, the betting line for the game is anywhere from 0 to 3 points, according to ESPN.com.
Let's look at some key storylines and matchups to keep an eye on when these two teams face off Sunday night in Houston.
Texans: Slow Down Andrew Luck
Most expected Andrew Luck to quickly develop into an offensive maestro upon reaching the NFL, and he hasn't disappointed. The second-year signal-caller has shown great poise and ability to command his unit from the line of scrimmage this year, en route to posting a 91.3 passer rating. He's averaged 221 passing yards per game and totaled 13 touchdowns (10 passing, three rushing) against just three interceptions this year.
But the Texans have a great answer to Luck with premier pass-rusher J.J. Watt. Through seven games this year, Watt has 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss, but his impact goes beyond the box score. The sack total has gone down from last year's pace, but Watt's ability to control the line of scrimmage and knack for knocking down passes is undeniable.
When these two teams faced off in Week 15 last year, Watt racked up three sacks of Luck in a 29-17 Texans' win. But it's not just Watt that the Colts have to worry about, as fellow defensive end Antonio Smith (2.5 sacks) can also be a handful. The Colts have given up 15 sacks in seven contests this year and will need strong efforts from tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus to keep Luck upright.
Colts: Receivers Need to Step Up
Luck lost one of his biggest weapons and most trusted agents in Week 7 when Reggie Wayne went down with a knee injury. Shortly after, Wayne was declared out for the year with an ACL tear to snap his streak of consecutive games played at 189.
Per Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, Colts coach Chuck Pagano recently said it's impossible to replace a player like Wayne but that he's confident in the team's backups. T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey figure to be Luck's receivers 1A and 1B going forward, while the team waits on Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill or David Reed to emerge as the No. 3 wideout.
But Wayne's impact on Luck's career so far can't be overstated. Mike Wells of ESPN.com shared some statistical perspective on the Wayne-Luck connection:
Andrew Luck has only completed 23 percent of his pass attempts without Reggie Wayne on the field http://t.co/moVi7OB1gF— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) October 31, 2013
The task will also be made more difficult in facing the Texans and their menacing pass rush. As a whole, the unit ranks first in total defense (267.7 yards per game allowed) and pass defense (145.6).
Luck will have to be creative and perhaps rely on his tight ends and running backs more often without Wayne and an unproven crop of receivers waiting in the wings.
Texans: Feed Arian Foster
Much of the focus out of Houston the past few weeks has been on the evolving quarterback situation between Case Keenum and Matt Schaub. For all of the uncertainty under center, Foster has continued to be one of football's most productive backs this year.
But he left in the first half of the Week 7, 17-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs with a hamstring injury, and he is questionable for Sunday. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle shared an encouraging update from Thursday's practice session, though:
Arian Foster took all reps n practice but is still game time decision. Ben Tate took it easy cause of 4 cracked ribs but still practiced— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) October 31, 2013
Assuming Foster is in the starting lineup, it will be paramount to keep handing the ball off to him. From Week 4 to Week 6, Foster averaged about 23 carries and 113.7 yards per game. For the season, he has totaled 542 yards with healthy 4.5 yard-per-carry average.
Feeding Foster the ball would serve two purposes for the Texans—not only would he take some responsibility off Keenum's shoulders, but he would help control time of possession and keep Luck on the sideline.
Colts: Get Pressure on Case Keenum
It's Keenum's turn to prove he's the right man for the starting job after earning coach Gary Kubiak's trust with his performance in Week 7. Taking over for an injured Schaub (ankle), Keenum went 15-of-25 for 271 yards and a touchdown, completing six passes of at least 25 yards in the process. More importantly, he didn't turn the ball over and kept the Texans competitive against the undefeated Chiefs in a 17-16 loss.
Who Should Be Houston's Starting QB This Week?
Keenum has a tall task set for Sunday, though, as NFL sack leader Robert Mathis is coming to town. Mathis has flourished since making the move from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker as part of the team's 2012 transformation. This year, he has 11.5 sacks in seven games and looks like an All-Pro.
Houston ranks 20th in the NFL, having given up 22 sacks so far this year, and looks to be a good matchup for Mathis and Colts' pass rush. In its last contest, Indianapolis sacked Peyton Manning four times en route to handing the Denver Broncos their first loss of the season. Keenum didn't looked rattled last week, but he's still an unproven commodity that the Colts should try to exploit.