INDIANAPOLIS – On paper, some might think Sunday's game has little value to the Indianapolis Colts.
The fifth-seed is wrapped up for Indianapolis, and the Colts know they either will travel to New England or Baltimore in the Wild Card round next weekend.
In actuality, there is great importance this Sunday.
A familiar face is back on the sideline this weekend, and the focus remains intent on earning win No. 11, finishing the season with a 7-1 record at Lucas Oil Stadium and preparing the same way the team has done for the past 15 games.
"From day one, we set goals for ourselves and just watching what this team has done over the course of the last 12 weeks and the entire season, it's just not in our DNA, it's not in our makeup," Head Coach Chuck Pagano said of resting any starters this weekend.
Pagano returns to the sidelines for the first time since September 23.
For the second time in three weeks, the Colts are preparing to take on Houston, the 2012 AFC South champions.
Houston clinched the division title with a 29-17 victory on December 16, and it was a game of missed opportunities for the Colts.
A fumble on the goal-line and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown helped give Houston a 20-3 second-quarter lead. The Colts were able to claw back within six points late in the third period before surrendering the game's final six points.
Pagano pointed to those mistakes as the reasons why Indianapolis needed another comeback attempt.
The presence of J.J. Watt (10 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble) is another key the Colts are preparing for this weekend.
"Obviously we've got to make a big emphasis on taking care of 99, J.J. (Watt). You look at the three sacks that he had and the pressures and what he did in the run game," Pagano said.
"We were able to run the ball and have success running the ball. We left a lot of yards out there so if we can get him blocked in a couple situations, particularly in the run game, we probably left 40-50 yards out there."
Colts running back Vick Ballard had 18 carries for 105 rushing yards against the Texans and became the first opposing running back to surpass the 100-yard mark versus Houston this season.
Ballard is one of a number of Colts rookies who have emerged this season and played a major reason in why Indianapolis is returning to the post-season.
With the injuries, off-season overhaul and dealing with an interim head coach, the job the Colts have done is held in high regard by Houston Head Coach Gary Kubiak.
"I think it's got to be considered one of the finer jobs done in football in a long time," Kubiak said. "I can't tell you how impressed I am. We could (talk) all day long. It's been something special to watch. I would give the veteran players in Indianapolis a lot of credit because they've obviously brought those young guys along very quickly and were great examples for them."
For Kubiak and the Texans, Sunday's game has a lot riding on the line with home-field advantage and the AFC's top seed being able to be clinched with a victory.
The Texans are winless in 10 trips to Indianapolis, and the teams have split the meetings the last two seasons.
"It's always a tremendous atmosphere for a football game," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. "They always make it real tough for opposing offenses to hear and communicate. It's always very loud. With getting their coach back, I expect it to be as emotional as any game if not more. They're going to be emotional, and it's going to be an energy-filled stadium."
The scene at Lucas Oil Stadium will be one to remember when Pagano runs with his team onto the field from the southwest tunnel.
Yes, the fifth-seed is upon the Colts beginning Sunday evening. For those three hours of competition in the afternoon, it will be about fighting Houston and trying to carry a two-game winning streak into January.
"These kids deserve it. Their families deserve it. Our fans in this city deserve our best every game regardless of the situation and regardless of the circumstances," Pagano said of why he won't be resting starters.
"They're going to roll a ball out there, and it's our job to go out there and try to win a football game."
Texans 29, Colts 17 – December 16, 2012
Meeting for the first time of the season in Week 15, the Texans benefited from two game-changing plays in the second quarter to clinch their second straight AFC South title. Houston jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead thanks to a touchdown pass from Schaub to wide receiver Andre Johnson. The Colts appeared ready to cut into the deficit with the defense giving the offense back-to-back drives beginning inside the Houston 40-yard line. On the first drive, newly-signed running back Mewelde Moore fumbled on the one-yard line. The Colts then settled for a 26-yard field goal on the other possession after a penalty negated a touchdown. Shayne Graham added a 35-yard field goal to give Houston a 13-3 lead with 3:50 left in the first half. Pat McAfee's punt was blocked seconds later and linebacker Bryan Braman completed a scoring play with an eight-yard return. Down 20-3, Indianapolis created some momentum before halftime when Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 61-yard touchdown with just more than a minute remaining. Graham hit a 27-yard field goal to push the lead to 23-10 midway through the third quarter. The Colts answered with an eight-play, 80-yard drive. Dwayne Allen scored on an eight-yard touchdown pass cut the lead to 23-17. Indianapolis had one drive with the score remaining the same. After a three-and-out, Houston added two more Graham field goals. Arian Foster had 79 of his 165 rushing yards in the final quarter as Houston won the division.
Texans running back Arian Foster versus the Colts defense: Foster left Sunday's loss to the Vikings with an illness but has stated that he will be ready to go this weekend. The Colts kept Foster at bay in the first half during the team's first meeting, but he erupted in the second half and finished with 165 rushing yards on 27 carries. Indianapolis is dealing with a banged up front seven, and Foster will conclude a stretch of the top three rushers in the AFC to end the regular season for the Colts defense. Last week, the Colts surrendered 352 rushing yards at Kansas City, so playing stronger against the run is necessary.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt versus the Colts offensive line: Watt was a terror in the meeting two weeks ago with 10 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble on the goal-line. How the Colts will game plan for Watt has been a hot topic all week. Watt is just two sacks away from Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record of 22.5 sacks.
-The Colts have a 10-0 all-time record at home against the Texans.
-The Colts are the fourth team in NFL history to win 10 or more games following a season with two or fewer victories.
-Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and Texans general manager Rick Smith were teammates at Purdue University from 1991-92.
-Colts rookie running back Vick Ballard ranks second among all AFC rookie running backs with 736 rushing yards.
-Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis needs two sacks to register at least 10 for the fifth time.
-Colts cornerback Darius Butler has a career-high four interceptions this season.
-The Texans (12) have their highest single-season victory total.
-Texans running back Arian Foster is averaging 164 rushing yards per game in four previous meetings against the Colts.
-Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is averaging 143.3 reception yards per game over his past six outings.
-Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has 20.5 sacks, two short of Michael Strahan's NFL record.
-Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus is tied for first among all AFC rookies with six sacks.
Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano(on if he thinks teams lose momentum by resting players):
"Yeah, that's another great point. We've talked all season about how young we are. I know a couple of players mentioned it before they got out of here on Monday when asked the same question. You want to win. You want to win at home. You want to go into the playoffs with momentum. Regardless of how this team has gotten to the point that it's at right now being 10-5 and made the playoffs, we want to keep the momentum going. We want to keep these young guys coming on because they just keep getting better every week. To rest guys, so to speak, or pull back right now (is not the approach). I frankly don't think we have the numbers, just doing the numbers and counting the guys, to rest anybody."
Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano(on being bolstered by what team did in absence and the experience of the team meeting on Monday):
"It was incredible. Watching them, this team has no quit. We've talked from day one everybody thought we were crazy about what we could do and what we set our minds to do, and I thank those guys. I just watched them, I sat back for the last 12 ballgames, three months, it's been 90-something days I guess. Every week, I told them when I got diagnosed and Larry Cripe looked me in the eye and said, 'Here's what you have and here's the steps you have to take the beat this,' there was never a doubt in my mind that I'd be standing up here at some point addressing you and the team again. I told the team that there was never a doubt in my mind that they would be 10-5 right now. And then the playoffs, that's what we set out to do a long, long time ago, all the way back in the spring from the first meeting. We said it was next man up, and everybody has done that. Watching them week in and week out, I'm going to tell you from either a hospital bed or the bed at home in my living room, it's not easy. Sitting there as, what I basically became, a fan, you feel helpless at times. But watching these guys work and coach and play, they inspired me. They have no quit and they just found ways to get it done and to win."
Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano(on if concerned he will be a distraction by returning)
"I don't think so. I think that's kind of the way things worked out, the timing of the whole thing. I think just getting back when I did and then having Christmas and things like that, they're done with that. We've had our meeting and our time to reflect. I think that's behind the guys now. Our attention, our total focus is on the next game, our next opponent, the Texans. It's business as usual."
Colts safety Antoine Bethea(on balancing not trying to do something extra in trying to get a win for Coach Pagano):
"It's very important. I know B.A. (Bruce Arians) would always talk about you really don't want to let the emotions get to us. I think he really hit that on the head. Obviously, we want to win this game, but we want to go out there and win it the way we've been winning the rest of the games. Of course Coach Pagano is going to be back, so there's going to be emotions. We can't let those emotions affect us."
Colts outside linebacker Dwight Freeney(on if agrees with not resting players):
"I've been in this situation a lot and we've taken it different ways. Every year is kind of unique. Whether you agree it with or not, I think there is something to be said about keeping your momentum going, still going out there and working your craft. I think it could be a positive thing. Obviously, we have some guys who are banged up and I don't think they'll play. But I think guys who can play, should play. I know for me definitely it's to stay sharp, and I don't have a problem playing to stay sharp. You are risking getting hurt but that's just part of the nature of this game."
Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak(on if approaches this as a regular season game with everything that's on the line):
"No doubt. Our approach, our preparation and how we get ready to play each week is pretty consistent. It doesn't change in anything we are doing. We know we are going to be playing a week from now, or two weeks from now, whatever the situation is. So the key is how are we playing, and that's been our approach the whole time. We knew we had a tough last month of the season. We are playing some good football teams, and obviously we are going to have to play better than we've been playing."
Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak(on if expects Colts to rest players with not a lot a stake):
"No, I think that's kind of moved on in football. I think everybody's got maybe certain players that may have injuries they have been fighting through or stuff that you have to pay special attention to. But the bottom line is you only have 53 active players and 46 are going to suit up. You just have to go play and keep pushing it through the weeks. You guys and us, we both know that we are going to be playing a week from now and sure you do want to get out of the game clean but you only have so many guys that you can play."
Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak(on if has addressed team about Sunday being emotional game for Colts):
"I mean everybody in football understands that. It's been talked about a great deal throughout the course of the season and obviously as a coach and a member of the National Football League, I think it's wonderful. I'm just so happy for Chuck and his family and what he's been through. I'm glad to see he's doing well and back on the field. I know that's important to him and how proud he is of the guys and the work they did while he was away. We are just happy to see him back, too. Regardless of whether you are playing him or not playing him, you all respect this league and what guys do and the jobs they do. None bigger than what he's been through and my respect for him is tremendous."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub(on if expects Colts to rest players with not a lot a stake):
"I don't expect them to. You can't think that way in this business. We expect them all to play and give it their best shot. A divisional opponent with a lot on the line for moving on into January. We expect them to give us their best shot."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub(on why Houston has had so much trouble in Indianapolis):
"You know really, just looking back on it, it's a very tough place to play on the road. It's a hostile environment and a very good football team. Indy has always been a really good football team that we've always matched up well with each other. Having to get over that hump of going up there and winning."