Usually in this space, we isolate a matchup on the field that we think will be critical in determining the ultimate outcome of the game. Today, rather than focus on specific matchups of players or units, we'll focus on a situation. For the Indianapolis Colts to win today against the Houston Texans, they must convert at least half their third downs, limit their turnovers and keep their offense on the field.
Houston's success is predicated on stopping opponents' third down attempts and getting them off the field. The Houston defense has been nothing short of brilliant in this department, allowing only 30 per cent of their opponents' third down attempts to be completed. Additionally, Houston ranks third in the NFL in turnover margin with a plus 14.
When the Texans are able to get their opponents off the field, their constricting ground attack takes over, wearing down opposing defenses by keeping them on the field. For the season, Houston is averaging more than 34 minutes of possession per game.
Last week, however, the Texans ran into a New England Patriots team that was even more adept at holding the football than they were. The Patriots converted six of 12 third downs and stayed on the field for over half the game. They committed only one turnover as well. As a result, New England limited the number of touches for running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate and won the game going away 42-14.
That means that Andrew Luck and his teammates have to stay on the field and limit the number of plays run against them. This is not an unprecedented challenge for the Colts, however.
In week nine against the Miami Dolphins, the Colts face what was then the NFL's leading defense against third down. Luck and the Colts responded by converting 13 of 19 third downs and did not turn the ball over in a 23-20 victory. The Colts owned time of possession by nearly 10 minutes.
Overall, the Colts have been quite successful on third down. Despite facing the third most third downs in the NFL (190) the Colts have converted on 43 per cent of those chances. This has allowed them to pile up first downs (3rd in the NFL) and maintain possession (10th in the NFL). All this keeps an undermanned Colts' defense, particularly in the defensive backfield, from being overexposed.
The real problem for the Colts, particularly on the road, has been in ball security. Giving up the ball via the turnover not only puts the defense back on the field, but often does so in less than ideal circumstances. That will be a huge challenge today in Houston against one of the league's best pass rushes and an opportunistic secondary. The Colts' offensive line is once again injured, but I don't expect the Texans to apply any more pressure to Luck than Detroit did.
Luck can't turn the ball over like he did against the Lions and expect to be in a position for late-game heroics. Houston's running game is built for playing with a lead.
If the Colts can do these two things, convert on half their third downs and stay at least even in turnovers, they can beat Houston today at Reliant Stadium. If they do so, and follow up with a win at Kansas City next week, it guarantees that the week 17 rematch with the Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium will be for the AFC South title.
Final score: Colts 23, Texans 20
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