This matchup brings some sort of deja vu about it. Well I suppose this will be the third time we have seen it. In some ways it is fitting that this is the Wildcard game for these two teams. They split the season series 1-1 and were separated by just one game in the division standings. At this stage both teams know each others strength and weaknesses well and there is unlikely to be many surprises.
So what is going to be the key to this game? Who will win the season 2-1 and march on into the Divisional round?
Run Run Run
The run game has been so important to this division this season. The Titans stayed in the division thanks to their run game. The Jaguars leaned on it when they realised that Blake Bortles was not the answer. The Colts turn around earlier this season coincided with them finding their run game. The Texans run game dragged them through some tough spots.
I have read a lot of people saying that the correlation between rushing yards and victories is false. That you run the ball more when you are leading so naturally you will have more rush yards when you win. However, I do not believe that in all cases. These two teams have relied heavily on the run to make their offences tick.
Hiding their deficiencies
Both teams have needed the run game this year to hide their issues. The Colts deficiency was the question marks over Andrew Luck earlier in the season. However, that is much less of an issue now than it was in the early part of the season.
For the Texans it is a different matter. The Texans offensive line is horrific, allowing Deshaun Watson to be sacked an incredible 61 times. as if that was not bad enough he has also had to scramble 60 times, which is 13 more times than any other quarterback. His protection has been a complete mess and that is why the run game has been crucial.
The run game for the Texans has commanded respect and has allowed the pass game to take advantage of matchups, and keep defensive lines off balance. They need to establish the run early in this game or the Colts defence is going to have a field day hunting Watson in this game.
The quarterback show
The run game is important but given that both teams rank in the top 10 in run defence this game is going to come down to the two main men. Since Week 3 Luck has been a completely different passer. A big part of that will be repetitions but his offensive line has also been incredibly good. Luck was sacked just 18 times this season, the least amount for any quarterback playing a full 16 games. If the offensive line can give Luck that sort of time again he can pick apart a Texans defence that ranks 18th in net yards per pass attempt.
As for Watson, if he can get the time the Colts ranks 20th in net yards allowed per pass attempt. However, his legs are also going to be key. His ability to scramble and extend plays makes DeAndre Hopkins borderline impossible to cover. It also means the Colts will constantly need to use a defender to spy him, as if he gets lose he can break 15-20 yards in the blink of an eye. My expectation is that Luck will win the passing yards battle in this game but Watson’s yards with his feet could be extremely important.
This might seem obvious but converting on third down and in the red zone is going to be huge in this game. In terms of third down conversion rate the two defences essentially even out, at 20th (Texans) and 23rd (Colts) overall. Offensively though there is a huge gap. The Colts rank 1st in the league in third down efficiency will an impressive 48.6% conversion rate. Meanwhile the Texans convert on just 37% of third downs, the 20th worst in the league.
When it comes to red zone efficiency the Colts have the advantage on both sides of the ball. The Texans rank 27th and 29th on offence and defence, respectively. They allow touchdowns on 70.7% of opponents trips into the red zone, while scoring touchdowns on just 50% of their own trips.
In contrast, the Colts score a touchdown 68.8% of the time they enter the red zone and allow opponents to score on just 53.5% of red zone trips. Those numbers are pretty worrying for the Texans as matching touchdowns with field goals is not the way to win games.
There are two big offensive X factors and a couple of defensive ones in this game.
On offence the performances of T.Y. Hilton and DeAndre Hopkins will be huge. Hilton had the better of the last game and Hopkins the first game. Whoever gets the better of the opposing defence could go a long way towards deciding this game. Both are banged up but if I am the opposing defence I am not taking either of these guys lightly. Getting beaten by either of these two in that game would be inexcusable.
On the defensive side there are keys on both side. The pass rush of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will be key. If they can make Luck uncomfortable they can force him to let the ball go early then they can limit the effect of Hilton down the field. However, if Luck has time to throw he could pick that secondary apart.
For the Colts the first key is obvious. Darius Leonard has seven sacks and an incredible 163 combined tackles. Stopping Watson and the run game is vital for the Colts and Leonard is going to be the main weapon for that. The other key, as Andy Benoit noted on Dual Threat, is going to be how the Colts use Kenny Moore. Their slot corner is going to be a big part of their plans. At times they will need him to help with DeAndre Hopkins, but they can also use him in blitzes and contain to make Watson uncomfortable. He made be an unlikely key but he could be the difference maker in this game.
The Texans are favourites one point favourites in this game and that is simply due to home field advantage. The Colts are the better all around team and when push comes to shove their offence is the most consistent. Playoff games come down to taking advantage of opportunities and the Colts have been better at that this season. Therefore, I think they are the team that will be heading into the next round.
The over/under in this game is 48.5 and that is right around the scoring that I see this game having. My prediction for this game is somewhere in the region of 24-21 or 27-24 with a late score either winning it or making it tight. For that reason I would avoid betting on the points total in this game.
Image credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports