After Houston's close 20-17 loss to the Colts in Week 9, many experts have said that the Texans have the best chance of derailing Indy's potential undefeated season in today's rematch. That's for two reasons -- first, the Texans have played the Colts tight in four of their last five matchups, and second, the toughest opponent Peyton and his crew face after this game is the Denver Broncos, and who knows what kind of team you'll get when you take on Denver these days?
The loss to the Colts would have been the most important win in Texans history, and that still stands of Houston can pull it off. The AFC South championship would be out of reach barring a selection of Biblical miracles, but Houston could go forward with great confidence on a possible playoff run. The question is, how do the 5-5 Texans actually pull it off?
One advantage will present itself right off the bat -- pass-rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney(notes) is out with an abdominal injury. In the first matchup this season, Freeney racked up 1.5 sacks against Houston's offensive line, and his absence allows Houston to adjust its protection schemes to account for Robert Mathis(notes). Freeney and Mathis feed off each other, preventing offenses from taking both players on with the double-teams they deserve.
The matchup of the game is the same as it was the first time -- Colts tight end Dallas Clark(notes) versus Texans rookie linebacker Brian Cushing(notes). In Week 9, Manning targeted Clark 16 times, and Clark caught 14 passes for 119 yards. These were mostly underneath routes averaging 8.5 yards per catch, and the Texans bracketed coverage to deal with the Colts' receivers. Despite Clark's stat-heavy day, it was an effective strategy in that Manning did not throw a touchdown pass to a receiver -- only running back Joseph Addai(notes) kept Manning alive in the touchdown category. The Texans might consider rolling safety Bernard Pollard(notes) over more to cover Clark, but they'd probably be better off allowing the small stuff and devoting more resources to the deep and outside threats -- especially when the Colts go no-huddle and stop Houston from using substitutions. Oh, and putting the game on the foot of kicker Kris Brown(notes) (pitcured above, right after missing the field goal that would have tied the Colts game) isn't advisable right now.
The real challenge for Houston will be to put together consistent drives via run and pass balance, and control the momentum of the game. Ryan Moats(notes) led the team with 38 yards on 16 carries last time, and that will not feed the bulldog. They need to work Steve Slaton(notes) in for his versatility, and put together enough threats to keep Indy's defense from smothering Andre Johnson(notes). If they can do that, and keep Manning's deep stuff in check (especially the threat of Austin Collie(notes) on deep slot routes -- that's where Pollard needs to be if he's coming up to force), the Texans have a good chance of beating the Colts in Houston.