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Game Preview: Colts vs. Texans, Week 18

Here's everything you need to know before the Colts kick off their season finale against the Houston Texans on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

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One Big Storyline

There's not one singular storyline to follow on Sunday, so we're going to break these two usual game preview sections up into looking at a few veterans to watch and then rookies to keep an eye on during the Colts' season finale. We'll start with the veterans here.

Sam Ehlinger gets the start. With Nick Foles out with a ribs injury, Ehlinger will make his third start of the season and first since the Colts' 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 9. The Colts value Ehlinger's poise, mobility and schematic knowledge, and Sunday will be his final opportunity of his second year in the NFL to take valuable snaps – ones that'll help him grow heading into the offseason.

"As a young player, reps are invaluable," Ehlinger said. "So the more reps that you can get, the more comfortable you're going to get. I think being able to get a chance to get out there last week will prepare me well for this week."

Zaire Franklin's shot at a franchise record. Franklin needs five tackles to break Shaquille Leonard's franchise record for most tackles in a season (163); his 159 tackles entering Week 18 are fourth in the NFL. It's been a remarkable season for Franklin, who's gone from being a core special teamer and rotational linebacker to earning a nod as a 2023 Pro Bowl alternate.

"Just thinking about the journey that I've been through here with the Colts," Franklin said. "All the highs and lows, just for my first real opportunity to set a new record, set a new standard, it means a ton. But at the same time, it makes me question how good I really can be. I got a lot of work to do and it's so many things I want to improve on, but sometimes you gotta sit back and be thankful for the journey."

Last looks before free agency for a few players. Among the Colts players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March: Wide receiver Parris Campbell, linebacker Bobby Okereke and kicker Chase McLaughlin. All three have had solid seasons – Campbell has 57 catches for 581 yards with three touchdowns, Okereke has 146 tackles, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles, and McLaughlin has made 29 of 35 field goals, including eight of 11 from 50 or more yards.

5 Things To Watch

Alec Pierce. Wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne said on Thursday he told Pierce he saw the second-round pick hit the rookie wall, and challenged him to get over it in Week 18. But Pierce has had plenty of encouraging moments during his rookie season, including a handful of catches on deep shots. He enters Week 18 with 38 catches for 551 yards and two touchdowns; for what it's worth, Wayne had 27 catches for 345 yards and no touchdowns as a rookie in 2001.

"You just have to find a way to keep pushing," Wayne said. "But I enjoy being around him. The guy is a hard worker. He wants to be good."

Jelani Woods. Woods enters the final game of his rookie season with 24 catches on 36 targets for 303 yards with three touchdowns – but turn on the tape, and you see a fluid athlete who's both capable of boxing out defenders for jump balls and rumbling for acres of YAC with the ball in his hands.

"Rookie year is not easy – it's a long season and he continues to bring it every single day," quarterback Nick Foles said last week. "He's going to be a great player in this league."

Bernhard Raimann. Raimann has held his own since being re-inserted into the Colts' starting lineup in early November. Since Week 9, Raimann has the NFL's second-highest Pro Football Focus pass block grade (75.2) among rookie offensive linemen; in that span, his 76.5 overall PFF grade ranks 18th out of 85 tackles. The Colts will have time for a full evaluation of Raimann's rookie year in the offseason, but his progress in the second half of 2022 has been encouraging.

"He's battled," interim head coach Jeff Saturday said. "I've been really happy with his progress."

Rodney Thomas II. Thomas will be playing for his good friend Damar Hamlin when he takes the field on Sunday for the final game of a remarkable rookie season. Thomas, the No. 239 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, leads the Colts with three interceptions, and quarterbacks have just a 57.4 passer rating when targeting him in coverage.

"My only two focuses, my only two goals," Thomas said on Wednesday, after he visited Hamlin at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, "are Damar and the Texans this weekend."

Nick Cross, JoJo Domann, Dallis Flowers. The last guys to watch are a trio of players who've made impacts on special teams. Cross, after his role on defense diminished, has stepped in for Bubba Ventrone and leads the Colts with 10 special teams tackles – and his 90.3 PFF special teams grade is seventh among players with at least 200 special teams snaps. Domann is second on the Colts with nine special teams tackles and scored a touchdown on a blocked punt in Week 15. And Flowers, who's averaging 33 yards per kickoff return on 19 returns, could become the first player since 1970 to average 33 or more yards per return on 20 or more kickoff returns in a single season.

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