INDIANAPOLIS – The regular season now has three games left. The Colts can clinch their 12th playoff berth since 1999 with a win Sunday at Houston.
Three wins to close the season can mean an eighth AFC South title for the Colts, but Bruce Arians has the team focused tightly on the next 60 minutes of action.
Houston is coming off a lopsided defeat at New England and is home for the first time in a month.
The Texans need to rebound. The Colts need an eighth win in nine tries, and this is a matchup of teams that have yet to lose consecutive games.
Getting their 10th victory is the aim for the Colts on Sunday, and here are SEVEN THINGS NEEDED TO WIN:
GET THE LEAD – Houston has been good at scoring early and leading at the half. Those are things with which the Colts have struggled. Getting behind early can be tough. This year's story has been about comebacks and strong 30-minute finishes. Let's try to start fast.
WEATHER THE STORM – This was a mantra during the Tony Dungy era when he expected opponents to start furiously. Houston is coming off its second wide defeat margin this year. They have not played at home since before Thanksgiving. Trying to erase the stigma of a 28-point loss on national television and wanting to sew up the AFC South has to be a priority for them. Watch the early sucker punch.
BOTTLE HIM UP – This is the same phrase used for Chris Johnson last week, and Arian Foster is this week's load. Houston is 42-5 under Gary Kubiak when it rushes 30 or more times. This keeps opponents at bay and the clock moving. Houston has won possession time every week except last Monday. Foster has 1,148 yards and 14 scores. He is versatile in the passing game. Foster will be a big part of the mix, no doubt.
TURNOVER TROUBLE – Last year's game at Reliant Stadium featured two one-play drives for the Colts that ended with turnovers inside their own red zone – fumble, fumble. It was 17-0 Texans 13:19 into the game, and school was out. Indianapolis cannot afford to go below minus-16 in turnover ratio. It briefly got to minus-18 last week before two interceptions helped sway defeat into victory. As Barney Fife would say, "Nip it in the bud."
CONTINUED RED ZONE EFFICIENCY – Recent red zone extra practice work has paid dividends – five straight touchdowns in the red zone. A young offense has gotten more efficient and is running better down deep. If Houston wins this area, it wins the game and division. If the Colts prevail, things can get interesting. Be on-point.
PROTECT THE ASSET – Nothing would suit the home crowd more than to make Andrew Luck's return an unpleasant one. Like Titans fans were like that with Peyton Manning – while they loved him in orange, they wanted him defeated in blue. Ditto Luck. Defensively, Houston is near the league lead in sacks per attempt. Taking down the quarterback is a strength of this bunch, and that incites the locals.
A LITTLE EXTRA – Before its first road win of the year, Arians told his players to do their jobs, then just a little more. That did not mean forsake individual assignments for someone else's, but to spark something a little beyond the normal to help the team. It worked then, and this is a huge divisional game – O-Line, play well and be versatile; defense, keep Houston struggling on third downs, limit cut runs and keep the edge firm; special teams, kick and cover well, stretch and hit. Work the process.
QUOTE TO NOTE: Bruce Arians (on if Andrew Luck has exceeded expectations)
"I think so, in a lot of ways. You never know how tough a guy is until you have him. You can judge everything except the heart muscle when you're out there evaluating guys. He's got a heart, and he's got a great grit."