Colts' next challenge is beating NFL's top defense

MICHAEL MAROT (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The Colts already have a laundry list of first-half accomplishments.

They beat the defending NFC champs on the road. They are the only team with wins over two of the NFL's three one-loss teams. They've already beaten the NFL's top offense and, on Sunday, they've got another big challenge - facing Houston's top-ranked defense .

''They've got game-wreckers all over the place. They've got a front seven that is as good as anybody in football. They've got probably the best defensive player in football in J.J. Watt,'' coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday.

Pagano didn't stop there, and with good reason. There are plenty of other guys on Houston's defense who are capable of creating chaos, and the Colts know it.

Indy (5-2) has grown accustomed to these sorts of story lines.

Before Peyton Manning's return to Lucas Oil Stadium two weeks ago, Pagano matched wits with his younger brother, San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano. Before that, Andrew Luck faced former college teammate Richard Sherman and returned to the Bay Area where he played college football. Before that, it was Darrius Heyward-Bey and Vontae Davis trying to show their former teams, Oakland and Miami, they made mistakes by letting them go.

But Sunday's contest may be the most significant yet.

If the Colts hand Houston (2-5) a sixth straight loss, their lead over the two-time defending AFC South champs will expand to four games with eight to play and give them a key road win over the Texans (2-5). A win Sunday also would give Indy a chance to complete a sweep of its division road games when they play at Tennessee.

If they both the Texans and Titans, Indianapolis would be in complete control of a division it virtually owned from 2002-10, though the Colts aren't looking that far ahead.

''There's a saying - to be the champ, you got to beat the champ. They're the champ,'' Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis said. ''In order to get it back, we've just got to go down there and handle our business. I've been a part of some division championship teams. They're focused and they want it, it's just a matter of taking care of business.''

Few teams have been better at overcoming distractions these last two seasons.

Last year, Indy used an incredible second-half rally to beat Green Bay - just six days after players were told Pagano would be out indefinitely to battle leukemia. When Pagano returned for the final week of the regular season, the Colts won that game, too, beating the Texans to prevent them from earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. They won Luck's home debut and his first two games against rookie quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill), and now comes another trip home to Houston.

Why are the Colts so good in these situations?

''I think when you go through what we went through last year with coach, it puts things in perspective,'' Robert Mathis said. ''It lets you know that anything is possible.''

Matt Hasselbeck, Luck's backup, has been through similar circumstances.

In 15 seasons, he served as Brett Favre's backup, led Seattle to a Super Bowl, made three Pro Bowl appearances and was a solid starter in Tennessee. So when the season began, Hasselbeck couldn't avoid seeing the similarities between this locker room and others he's been part of.

''I told them how similar that (Super Bowl) team is to this one,'' Hasselbeck said. ''That year, guys you'd never heard of stepped up and had the best years of their careers and the guys we were counting on also had the best years of their careers. Reggie (Wayne) was having a great season, Andrew is off to a great start and now we need everybody to maximize their potential.''

Especially this week, against the Texans' defense.

In addition to Watt, the league's reigning defensive player of the year, Houston also has 2004 defensive player of the year Ed Reed; Pro Bowl defensive end Antonio Smith; emerging nose tackle Earl Mitchell; three former first-round picks - cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph - and linebacker Whitney Mercilus; linebacker Brooks Reid and safety D.J. Swearinger, both second-round picks; and linebacker Darryl Sharpton, a fourth-round pick in 2010.

What the Texans are missing is their defensive leader, Brian Cushing, who sustained a season-ending knee injury before last week's bye.

The Colts don't expect much of a drop off.

''They've got able bodies. They've played well with him and they've played well without him,'' Pagano said. ''They've got a system in place and they're going to run their system.''

But if Luck is going to deliver back-to-back wins over the league's most potent offense and most stingy defense, he has to focus on something other than a homecoming.

''Right now, it's us versus the Texans,'' he said. ''They are the reigning division champs and to get where we want to go, we have to through them.''


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