INDIANAPOLIS —It's the "last rodeo" of 2017.
The Indianapolis Colts (3-12) on Sunday wrap up their season looking to enter 2018 on a high note, as they play host to the Houston Texans (4-11).
The Colts are coming off another close loss, this time a 23-16 decision against the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. Indianapolis got a late break, blocking a Baltimore punt and getting the ball deep in Ravens' territory, but couldn't find a way to get the ball in the end zone for a potential game-tying score for their sixth straight loss.
The Texans, meanwhile, lost their fifth straight game on Monday, 34-6, to the Pittsburgh Steelers at NRG Stadium. Pittsburgh took a 27-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Houston finally got on the board for the first and only time all game with a three-yard touchdown pass from T.J. Yates to DeAndre Hopkins.
So what should fans be looking for in this Colts/Texans Week 17 matchup on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium?
The last time Frank Gore had at least 139 rushing yards in a game was his final appearance with the San Francisco 49ers, when he ran for 144 yards on 25 carries (a 5.8 yards-per-carry average) Dec. 29, 2014, vs. the Arizona Cardinals. And here we are, almost three years to the day later, and Gore needs a similar outing to reach a major milestone that wouldn't only mean a lot to him, but to the entire Colts sideline. The ageless (well, he's 34, but you know what I mean) wonder enters Sunday's game with 861 rushing yards, and if he can somehow find a way to get 139 more, he'll reach the 1,000-yard plateau not only for the second straight season, but for the 10th time in his Hall of Fame career, joining a list of Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders as the only players in league history to accomplish that feat. Other milestones Gore could reach on Sunday: with a 100-yard rushing performance, he would pass O.J. Simpson (42) for the 16th most in NFL history; he needs 68 scrimmage yards to pass Marcus Allen (17,654) for seventh on the NFL's all-time list and 105 scrimmage yards to reach 1,200 for the season, extending his NFL record to 12 straight seasons with at least 1,200 scrimmage yards; he needs 74 rushing yards to get to 14,000 for his career; and he needs one rushing touchdown to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 21st on the NFL's all-time list.Hit Hilton
Should the Colts get on a roll in the ground game with Gore, then that'll certainly open things up down the field for quarterback Jacoby Brissett to find T.Y. Hilton, who is also chasing a few milestones on Sunday. Hilton sits just 48 receiving yards shot of 1,000 on the season, which would be his fifth in a row. If Hilton gets to that mark, he would join Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne (eight each) to reach that plateau in five different seasons. Hilton also needs one receiving touchdown to tie Marcus Pollard (35) for the ninth-most in franchise history; needs one 100-yard receiving game to tie Demaryius Thomas (29) for the seventh-most such games in a player's first six season in NFL history; and with one 150-plus yard performance he would tie Harrison (11) for the most such games in franchise history. So the Colts need to be good running the ball as well as passing it on Sunday — got it?Feeling Blue
The Texans' offense will be without its top weapon on Sunday, as No. 1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins — who is well on his way to a second All-Pro selection — will miss the first game of his career after suffering a calf injury. Hopkins this season ranks fifth in the league in receptions (96), second in receiving yards (1,378) and first in receiving touchdowns (13), and, alone, has outproduced the rest of Houston's five other wide receivers to have caught at least one pass this season; they've combined to log 75 receptions for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns. While second-year Notre Dame product Will Fuller V will likely be counted on to step up at receiver on Sunday, one would imagine the Texans will also employ a heavy run-oriented approach against the Colts. Last week against the Steelers, despite the fact not much else went their way, the Texans actually ran the ball pretty well, as running backs Alfred Blue (16 carries for 108 yards) and Lamar Miller (10 carries for 55 yards) combined to average almost 6.3 yards per carry against a talented Pittsburgh defensive front. Last time out against the Colts earlier this season, the Texans had just 21 total carries on the day — expect that number to go up significantly on Sunday with their top receiving threat standing on the sidelines.Put Yates On Skates
The Texans have certainly landed on their quarterback of the future, as rookie Deshaun Watson came in Week 2 and took the league by storm for about half a season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during, of all things, a non-contact drill in practice. Since that time, the position has been an issue for head coach Bill O'Brien and his squad, as backup Tom Savage had been struggling up until suffering a season-ending concussion in Week 14, while T.J. Yates (and, briefly, Taylor Heinicke) haven't fared any better the past couple weeks. It'll be Yates getting the start Sunday against the Colts, who must get pressure on the sixth-year North Carolina product in order to ensure success defensively; according to Pro Football Focus, Yates has been pressured on 44.3 percent of his dropbacks since Week 14, the third-highest rate in the league, and has a passer rating of 30.9 under duress (ranking 32nd out of 35 eligible quarterbacks). When Yates has a clean look, however, he has a passer rating of 89.5. So look for Jabaal Sheard — who had a monster game with four quarterback hits, including the game-sealing strip sack, Week 9 against the Texans — to continue leading the charge towards the QB on Sunday; he has the eighth-best overall grade (90.9) among all edge defenders in the league, according to PFF.Youngins
The Colts simply haven't giving their rookies and younger players more reps and opportunities down the stretch simply for evaluation purposes — they've been doing it out of necessity. Indy's depth has been tested perhaps more than any other season in recent memory in 2017, and we've reached the point where a good chunk of those logging snaps on offense, defense and special teams are either rookies or first-year players; guys who are making plays — and, of course, making some mistakes along the way — but are hungry, nonetheless. Take last week's game against the Ravens, for example: Anthony Walker made his first-career start at inside linebacker and had eight tackles and a huge blocked punt late in the ballgame; cornerback Quincy Wilson virtually shut down his side of the field; running back Marlon Mack got yardage in huge chunks when the ball was in his hands; outside linebacker Tarell Basham continued to show his development by pressuring quarterback Joe Flacco on a couple notable occasions; and Wilson, Kenny Moore II and Nate Hairston (in the slot) all got one more start under their belts at cornerback. All of those listed, and many more (including tight end Darrell Daniels, punter Rigoberto Sanchez, defensive tackle Grover Stewart, nose tackle Joey Mbu, long snapper Luke Rhodes and guard Jeremy Vujnovich) will all see plenty of time once again on Sunday against the Texans.Win.
Whether or not momentum from a victory in the season finale can actually carry over into the offseason is certainly up for debate, but one thing is for sure: the Colts need — and their fans deserve — a victory to wrap up 2017. In a season in which Indianapolis has seen key player after key player go down with injuries — some of them, like quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Mo Alie-Cox would never end up seeing the field all year — the Colts have found a way to remain competitive, particularly in the first two quarters of games. They've had a halftime lead, or a share of it, in 10 of out of their 15 games — that's two-thirds of them — but, as been reported time and time again, that's typically when the wheels have come off, as the team has won just three of those 10 games (and even all of those victories came down to the wire). A win against the Texans, which would give the Colts a season sweep over their AFC South Division rivals and bump them up to third place in the division standings, wouldn't ever take the bad taste out of mouths from this season (and from three straight years without a postseason appearance), but it could certainly provide at least something positive for everybody involved to chew on heading into a critical offseason for this franchise.Milestone Watch
Here are a few more milestones to keep an eye on Sunday, courtesy of Colts PR:
• Quarterback Jacoby Brissett needs one rushing touchdown to tie Andrew Luck (five in 2012) for the most rushing scores by a quarterback in a single season in franchise history; also, with one touchdown pass of 60-plus yards, he'd tie John Unitas (five in 1960) for the most in a single-season in franchise history.
• Tight end Jack Doyle needs two receptions to pass Dallas Clark (77 in 2008) for the second-most receptions by a tight end in a single season in Colts history. Clark had a tight end franchise record 100 receptions back in 2009.
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri needs to convert one field goal from 50-plus yards to tie Jason Elam (39) for the seventh-most made field goals from that distance in NFL history.