During an unexpectedly poor showing in the first seven games of the season, the Houston Texans played only one AFC South opponent and beat that team.
That's the upside about the Texans' start. The downside for Houston is that during that malaise, the Indianapolis Colts returned to the top of the division and joined the league's elite. The Colts enter this game with a two-game lead over the Tennessee Titans, who are second.
Both teams come off a bye week that followed a game in which they lost an important veteran -- Brian Cushing for the Texans and Reggie Wayne for the Colts. Both teams are now about to enter a stretch in which they play five divisional games. The landscape of the AFC South could change dramatically.
Colts reporter Mike Wells and I take a look at this week's matchup.
So Mike, how big of an impact will losing Wayne have on the Colts' offense?
Wells: I think the Colts will be fine for now without Wayne. They'll still win the AFC South -- it helps having a two-game lead -- because there aren't any teams in the division that can close the gap and the Colts don't have a tough schedule the rest of the season. It's in the playoffs that the Colts will miss Wayne's leadership and playmaking ability. He's been quarterback Andrew Luck's security blanket the past two seasons. Wayne is irreplaceable in the locker room and on the field.
Speaking of impacts, what type of impact do you think quarterback Case Keenum will have on the Texans?
Ganguli: Keenum opened up the Texans' passing game two weeks ago. They threw just one fewer deep pass in that game than they had in the four previous games combined. It's one area where Keenum is especially solid. He's also really impressed Texans teammates and coaches with his confidence, moxie (a word defensive coordinator Wade Phillips used) and poise. I would have excused him being rattled against a fierce Kansas City defense and crowd, but he wasn't. He was able to make plays off schedule. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 271 yards and one touchdown. It has seemed easy for him to step into a leadership role.
What kinds of challenges will the Colts' defense pose for Keenum specifically?
Wells: You can expect linebacker Robert Mathis to be licking his chops with Keenum at quarterback. Mathis leads in the league in sacks with 11.5. He's one of the leaders for Defensive Player of the Year. Safeties Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry, who are interchangeable, will try to confuse the young quarterback by disguising their coverage on him. Vontae Davis and Greg Toler are gambling cornerbacks, so expect them to try to make Keenum pay for every mistake he makes.
Is there one reason in particular that the Texans have struggled this season? Many people thought they would be Super Bowl contenders this season.
Ganguli: There have been a few factors. Turnovers have been a big part of it. The Texans' turnover margin is among the worst in the NFL right now at minus-11. Two weeks ago against the Chiefs was the only game in which the Texans' turnover margin wasn't negative. They hadn't been creating many and had been giving up the ball to an excessive degree. One other key area to examine is the red zone. Offensively and defensively, it hasn't been especially productive for Houston this season.
Wrapping things up here, Luck is a familiar face around Houston, having played football at Stratford High School. He took a beating last time he came to Houston with J.J. Watt notching three sacks as the Texans clinched the division. How has his protection been this year and how has that impacted his performance?
Wells: Improving the offensive line was at the top of the list for the Colts after Luck was sacked 41 times last season. They've been hit with some injuries along the line this season. Starting guard Donald Thomas was lost for the season in the opener with a torn quad and center Samson Satele has dealt with some injuries. Despite these issues, the Colts have done a better job of protecting Luck. He's been sacked only 15 times this season. But the Colts will have their hands full against a Texans defense that has “game-wreckers all over the place,” according to coach Chuck Pagano. I can't let you get out of here without talking about running back Arian Foster. Why is he averaging only 77.4 yards a game this season?
Ganguli: The Texans began the season limiting Foster's carries because he missed training camp while recovering from two injuries. The fact the Texans have found themselves in deep deficits has also hurt Foster's numbers. They just aren't running the ball as much as they did last season when they were playing with leads. He's had two 100-yard games this season and one 98-yard game. He rushed for 141 yards against the St. Louis Rams, which boosted his average. But the Texans' last game significantly depressed it. Foster gained only 11 yards after an early hamstring injury forced him from the game and limited him to just four carries.