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TNF – Colts at Texans
By Tony Mejia
Andrew Luck threw passes on Tuesday amid speculation he’s nursing a partial separation of his right throwing shoulder, stating he was “preparing to start and play.” On Wednesday, there were no reported setbacks as the Indianapolis quarterback looks to suit up in his hometown against AFC South rival Houston following a one-game absence.
No news may not necessarily be good news. As was the case last week, the Colts aren’t letting anyone see how effective Luck actually is, working him out indoors and away from media scrutiny.
Although all signs pointed to him missing the first start of his career this past Sunday, the build-up featured head coach Chuck Pagano adamantly holding out hope and divulging little of substance. The announcement came early Sunday morning that Luck wouldn’t be able to go against Jacksonville, but you get the feeling that was always the expectation internally. Backup Matt Hasselbeck got the call in a 16-13 overtime win that the Jaguars would’ve secured if not for a pair of missed potential game-winning field goal. It was his first start since 2012.
As for what to believe this week, hearing Luck’s declaration is reassuring, but nothing will be certain until we’re closer to kick-off. Complicating matters, the 40-year-old Hasselbeck reportedly fell ill, so the team has brought back Josh Johnson for a second consecutive week despite cutting him on Monday. He was also cut by the Bengals and Jets this preseason but has a strong arm and can really run. Consider Johnson Plan C.
Luck is Plan A, but if the Colts feel they would be better off giving him additional time to rest prior to their next game, Sunday night Oct. 18 vs. New England, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sit once more. Pagano has said a lot of things in his attempt to say nothing regarding this situation, but he also let on that “we’re going to do the smart thing.”
Officially, Luck and Hasselbeck are listed as questionable. The majority of shops listed Thursday night’s Week 5 opener as a pick’em until late Wednesday, when the Texans emerged as a 2-point home favorite.
Indianapolis has won its last eight games in this Thursday night short-week situation. The Colts have excelled in the compromising situation of a road game on little rest and are looking to set an NFL record with their 16th consecutive division win. Of course, 14 of those wins have come thanks to Luck, while No. 15 last week came as a result of luck given Jacksonville’s place-kicking woes. Indy was downright wasteful in the red zone, going 1-for-4 in delivering touchdowns, losing out altogether once due to another Frank Gore fumble.
Houston comes off a humbling 48-21 loss in Atlanta that saw them down 42-0 through three quarters. Despite leading the Texans to three touchdowns in the fourth, Brian Hoyer won’t be getting his job back – at least to start this game. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t want a controversy, so Ryan Mallett will get his second consecutive start after being handed the reins in Week 2. Unfortunately for O’Brien, it’s a little too late to avoid a situation where both of these guys will be looking over their shoulders since neither was able to separate themselves in the preseason.
Mallett won only home start, playing reasonably well in a 19-9 victory against Tampa Bay, but has been abysmal in road losses in Carolina and Atlanta, completing less than 46 percent of his passes. The hope is that he’ll be able to get comfortable early in Houston, which will likely require a strong start from top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the NFL’s leader in targets. He’s on pace for a record number after getting 22 passes thrown his way in Atlanta and has 31 receptions, good for fifth in the league. Between their two quarterbacks, the Texans threw it 57 times in Atlanta, gaining 382 yards on their 29 completions, but the majority of those numbers were padded in the fourth quarter since Houston called only four runs.
Receiver Cecil Shorts scored a touchdown, but won’t be available for this one after hurting a shoulder. Nate Washington, who didn’t play last week but was averaging over nine targets per game over the last three games, will be absent again as well, leaving rookies Jaelen Strong, Chandler Worthy and Keith Mumphery to round out the receiving corps. With Indianapolis getting Greg Toler back from a bruised disc in his neck to fortify a banged-up secondary, this will be the strongest the Colts have been in the back all season. Vontae Davis has been matching up with No. 1s for most of the season and will probably see a lot of Hopkins if he plays, although Toler’s return may offer him some relief from that responsibility. Davis didn’t practice at all on Wednesday, casting doubt over his availability here.
Given all the issues related to the passing game, it’s no surprise the expectation is that Arian Foster will be a much larger part of the game plan. The Falcons kept him bottled up in his first action of 2015, surrendering just 10 yards on eight carries and three receptions for 26 yards. His biggest play was a 15-yard reception from Mallett on Houston’s first play, but it was all downhill after that, including a costly second-quarter fumble that Atlanta corner Desmond Trufant returned for a touchdown. Expect Foster to get more carries, but Alfred Blue and Chris Polk should still get work and may be utilized to keep the ball out of Luck’s hands if he’s indeed out there.
The total on this game opened at 45 and has been holding steady all week but will drop drastically if Luck isn’t standing behind center for the Colts. VegasInsider.com Total Expert Chris David offered up his thoughts on the ‘over/under’ for Thursday’s game.
“In last week’s game versus the Jaguars, the total went from 48 to 43 without Luck in the game and both teams combined for 29 points. I don’t believe you’ll see that big of a drop this week only because the Colts defense is still horrendous, which tells you what I think of the Jaguars offense. Only scoring 13 points while racking up 431 total yards and 21 first downs is mind-boggling, but it is Jacksonville we’re talking about,” explained David. “If Houston gets in the red zone, and I believe they will, it should muster up four to five scores in this spot.”
Bettors have watched the ‘over/under’ produce a 2-2 mark over the last two seasons but the two ‘over’ winners did take place in Texas as the teams combined for 61 and 51 points.
Indy’s QB, whoever it is, will have a motivated wideout to throw to in Andre Johnson, who will be facing his former team for the first time after feeling he was pushed out by the current regime. Houston’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs, he’s amassed nearly three times as many receiving yards as any other target in team history. Fans will give him a warm reception, but the same can’t be said between the lines since members of the secondary will have faced off against Johnson in practices and workouts for years. Starting corner Kareem Jackson was Houston’s first-round pick in 2010. Ten-year veteran Johnathan Joseph came on board in 2011. They‘re as familiar with Johnson, T.Y. Hilton and emerging second-year WR Donte Moncrief as anyone in the league, seeing these guys twice a year and having the pre-existing relationship with Johnson. Hilton has dominated the Texans throughout his career and has been especially effective at NRG Stadium, amassing 16 catches for an eye-popping 444 yards and four touchdowns the past two seasons.
Few defensive players know Luck as intimately as J.J. Watt, who has sacked him eight times in six meetings. Watt sacked him twice and ran in last year’s meeting in Houston and also recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown, but the Colts still won 33-28. Watt has four sacks on the season but has yet to account for a turnover. Given last week’s debacle, expect a fierce effort from the Texans defense, which has surrendered an average of 26 points per game over the last five games in this series, all losses. Their last win against Indianapolis came in Houston back in Dec. 2012, the only time they’ve beaten Luck in his career. We’ll see whether they even have a chance to change that on Thursday night, but the Texans would undoubtedly have an easier time winning if he’s stuck on the sidelines in a baseball cap again.