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Colts, Texans meet in winner-take-all Week 18 battle

Jan. 5—INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps the most telling indicator for the importance of Saturday's winner-take-all showdown against the Houston Texans is the Indianapolis Colts aren't even pretending this is just another week.

Professional athletes and coaches generally loathe any additional noise during game preparation. But this is a rare week when the earmuffs come off and at least some tiny fraction of the hype enters the locker room.

The stakes are clear. The victor gets a playoff date next week, and the loser begins a long offseason vacation.

There are variables that can alter the prize Sunday. Chiefly, if the Tennessee Titans upset the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts-Texans winner also claims the AFC South crown.

It's the closest thing to a playoff game teams can play during the regular season, and it's not lost on the participants.

"We know what's at stake," Indianapolis head coach Shane Steichen said. "Shoot, it's with anything, right? When you've got something great to go get, it's human nature you're going to give a little bit more. That's human nature.

"Our guys have been giving their all all year, but when the stakes are higher, obviously it's ramped up a little bit more."

The Colts (9-7) won 31-20 in the first meeting between the teams on Sept. 17 in Houston. That loss dropped the Texans (9-7) to 0-2, but they're 9-5 since.

Neither team resembles the version of itself from Week 2.

Key personnel has changed on both sides, and both teams have grown closer together as they've handled adversity.

That first matchup did prove to be a coming out party of sorts for Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud. Despite the loss, he finished 30-of-47 for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He was also sacked six times behind an offensive line missing all five of its projected starters.

It's the second-highest yardage total of Stroud's spectacular rookie season, and he's been particularly lethal against the kinds of zone defenses Indianapolis typically employs.

The front-runner to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year, Stroud has completed 63.2% of his passes for 3,844 yards with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions in 14 starts.

"He's not afraid, obviously, to make those big throws," Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "He's always looking down field to make a big play. He extends plays really well using his feet. He just knows how to get the guys going.

"He brings a lot of juice to the game for that team, and we've got to do a really good job defensively and really just apply pressure."

Indianapolis jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first game after early touchdown runs of 18 and 15 yards by rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson — with the second coming immediately after Stroud fumbled on a sack deep in his own territory.

But Richardson left the game early in the second quarter, and Gardner Minshew was 19-of-23 for 171 yards and a touchdown in his first extended action of the season.

Minshew will make his 13th start of the season in place of Richardson on Saturday.

Another notable change for the rematch will come at running back.

Zack Moss carried 18 times for 88 yards and an 11-yard touchdown in his season debut against the Texans. He's questionable this week after missing the past two games with a forearm injury.

Jonathan Taylor was still on the physically unable to perform list and did not play in the first meeting. He's averaged 124.6 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry in five career games against Houston.

But the Texans have been among the league's best run defenses this year, ranking third in yards allowed (1,416) and second with an average of 3.3 yards per carry.

The Colts' 126-yard rushing performance in the first meeting is the largest against Houston this season, but the Texans have allowed just two opponents to rush for 100 yards in the last 12 games.

It's one of many matchups that could determine the outcome of this all-important game.

The teams have had seasons that mirror one another, and there's not much separating them on paper.

It will all come down to 60 minutes in prime time with the season on the line.

"We got slated for 1 o'clock games the entire season. We get bumped into Saturday night. That's awesome," Indianapolis center Ryan Kelly said. "It's 'cause we've worked our (rear) off. We've been fun to watch 'cause we play hard. We play for each other. You do those things throughout the season, you're rewarded at the end.

"But it's the next game. It's the last game of the (regular) season. It's the only one that we're guaranteed, right? So ... how can you prepare the best so that at the end of the day (when) you go out there Saturday, we're just gonna continue to keep climbing on what we've been doing."