HOUSTON, TX – DECEMBER 09: Eric Ebron #85 of the Indianapolis Colts in action during the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. The Colts defeated the Texans 24-21. (Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

This year’s edition of the NFL playoffs begins with an inter-divisional matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. The looming clash is a battle between two teams who started off slow before turning things around in emphatic fashion.

For the Colts, they became the final team to qualify for the tournament when they upended the Tennessee Titans 33-17. It was the culmination of a furious run to close out the season in which they won nine of their last 10 games. In so doing, they became just the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting a season 1-5.

But the Texans deserve a lot of credit themselves for getting things back on track. After all, they began their 2018 campaign with three consecutive losses. Statistically, that’s a bit of a death sentence with regard to a team’s playoff hopes. Since the merger, only 2.3 percent of teams who began the year 0-3 ended up qualifying for the postseason.

Not only did the Texans qualify. They became just the second team to both win their division and finish with an 11-5 regular season record after an 0-3 start. The only other team to accomplish that feat in the Super Bowl era was the 1992 San Diego Chargers.

It all underscores the fact that whoever wins on Saturday is going to be a tough out the rest of the way. Should the Colts emerge victoriously, their next task will be to somehow slow down MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Texans win, a date with arguably the greatest ever coach-quarterback partnership in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady awaits.

Both of those teams pose unique challenges in their own right. And there’s no doubting that both they and others such as the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams out of the NFC are heavy favorites to make it to Super Bowl LIII. Still, count out Indy and Houston at your own peril.

The Watson-Hopkins Connection: Not as Heralded as It Should Be

Both squads boast players who are among the most underappreciated in the league. Like Mahomes, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson is in his second NFL season. And though his numbers aren’t as stratospheric as Mahomes, he’s still establishing himself as one of the NFL’s top young signal callers. He was one of just five NFL quarterbacks with a minimum of 500 attempts to finish with a passer rating above 100 this year. This despite an extremely leaky offensive line which led to him getting sacked a league-worst 62 times.

His top target in the passing game, DeAndre Hopkins, is perhaps garnering some newfound appreciation. This is in the wake of recent developments out of Pittsburgh that’s seen Antonio Brown, talented as he may be, devolve into a bit of a diva act. That’s a significant contrast to Hopkins who just quietly goes out and gets the job done. This stat cited by NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano on Twitter says it all.

Darius Leonard and Eric Ebron Among the Key Players for the Colts

On defense, underrated probably isn’t the right word for many of the Texans’ players. Case in point: J.J. Watt. The thunderous edge defender proved how immense a force he is when fully healthy, registering 16 sacks this year. Only Aaron Donald of the Rams managed more. But you can’t say the same thing about the Colts. And perhaps the biggest example of an underrated defensive player in all of the NFL this year is rookie linebacker, Darius Leonard.

The South Carolina State product put together a historic season for a first-year player. He registered 163 combined tackles during the regular season, becoming just the ninth player in NFL history aged 23 or younger to finish with at least 160. But he also showcased immense versatility for a player at his position. Leonard also totaled seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, and two interceptions. In addition, only six players recovered more fumbles than his two on the season. It makes his Pro Bowl snub all the more mystifying.

Shifting the focus to the Colts offense, there’s a certain tight end that epitomizes under the radar: Eric Ebron. The fifth-year man out of North Carolina is in many ways similar to Andrew Luck in that both enjoyed career revivals of sorts this year. In Ebron’s case, he morphed into Luck’s favorite target near the end zone, tallying 13 touchdown grabs. To put that in perspective, he managed a mere 11 in four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Not surprisingly, it led to him earning a Pro Bowl nod for the first time in his career. That said, Ebron probably isn’t anywhere near the first player who comes to mind when fans think of elite tight ends. For that reason, underrated remains a good word to describe his impact.

A Chance to Shock the World in the Divisional Round With a Win

Saturday’s contest is essentially a rubber match between these two. The Texans narrowly won the first meeting in Week 4, prevailing 37-34 in overtime. It ended their three-game skid to start the year and turned out to be the beginning of a blistering run of form. But Indy exacted revenge in Week 14 with the same margin of victory in a 24-21 triumph. So, in essence, these two teams are tied heading into this weekend’s wild-card festivities. Whoever breaks the deadlock will get a chance to massively shake up the AFC playoff picture one week later.

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