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Colts-Texans preview: 2023 regular season ends with a playoff game

The winner of Saturday night's Colts-Texans game will make the playoffs, and would win the AFC South if the Jaguars lose on Sunday. 

The Colts' Week 18 game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium isn't a playoff game. Technically. 

In reality? The winner of the game's season continues. The loser's season ends. 

The stakes are exactly the same as a playoff game. 

"It's win or go home," head coach Shane Steichen said. 

The Colts knew the stakes as they prepared for Saturday night's primetime game, but didn't change their process or mentality in the face of those heightened stakes. Players this week consistently mentioned how they've felt like their collective backs were against the wall over the last few weeks, which has helped them not feel the added weight of Week 18. 

"I don't think you make it any bigger than it already is," wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. "Everybody knows what type of game it is and how much it means. So try not to put any more pressure on that and do what we've been doing and keep it the same, and just know we're prepared."

Once the action starts on Saturday night, here are a few things to look for over 60 season-shifting minutes at Lucas Oil Stadium:

When the Colts have the ball

The Texans gave up a season-high 126 rushing yards to the Colts in Week 2, and have held opponents under 80 rushing yards in four consecutive games. Houston is second in yards per rush allowed (3.3 yards/attempt) and hasn't allowed an opponent to average four or more yards per rush since Week 11. 

The Colts, meanwhile, have ran the ball with efficiency and explosiveness at Lucas Oil Stadium recently. In Weeks 12, 15 and 17 – post-bye wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders – the Colts averaged 5.1 yards per rush and ripped off 15 runs of 10 or more yards. In those games, Colts running backs averaged 2.3 yards before contact, indicating the offensive line was getting plenty of push up front to create lanes for Jonathan Taylor, Zack Moss, Trey Sermon and Tyler Goodson. 

"We just got to find our rhythm," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "I think we've done that in some games and then we've lost it. I think it's being consistent every time we step out there, being locked in with our assignment, technique and being able to execute consistently against them."

One other thing to note when the Colts are on offense: Since Week 9, no team has fewer turnovers than the Colts:

Table inside Article
Team Turnovers
Colts 5
Steelers 6
Giants 7
Packers 7
Ravens 7

It's not a coincidence, then, that the Colts are 6-2 since Week 9.

When the Texans have the ball

C.J. Stroud needs 156 yards to become the fifth quarterback with 4,000 passing yards as a rookie, and just as impressive as his yardage total is his lack of turnovers. Entering Week 18, Stroud has an interception rate of 1.1 percent (five interceptions in 473 attempts), which is the second-lowest for a rookie quarterback in NFL history behind only the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott (0.9 percent).

"He's not afraid to make those big throws," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "He's always looking downfield to make a big play. He can extend plays really well using his feet. He just knows how to get the guys going. He brings a lot of juice to the game for that team, and we gotta do a really good job defensively and really just apply pressure."

The Colts know they not only need to pressure Stroud early and often, but get the Texans' quarterback to the ground – like the six sacks they had at NRG Stadium in Week 2. Stroud, especially since taking 11 sacks in Weeks 1 and 2, has been particularly adept at keeping defenses from making big plays when under pressure: He's the only quarterback in the NFL to be pressured at least 100 times and not throw an interception on those dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

"He plays with great poise," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "He handles pressures, he handles looks, he handles different schemes very well. He gets the ball out timely.

"... (He's) playing above the level of being a rookie. I think at this point in time, he's not a rookie because the looks that he's seen. He's playing very well for them right now. I think they're third or something in explosive passes. I know very high, I think the analytics told us so. He does a great job with the threats he has on the outside."

Stroud, too, has been surgical when he isn't pressured on third down. Only the Miami Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa has thrown for more yards on third down when not pressured than Stroud (1,020), while his passer rating of 122.5 in those situations is behind only the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson.

When Stroud is pressured on third down, his passer rating drops to 47.4, lowest among the 24 quarterbacks with at least 50 third down dropbacks under pressure.

"You can't get him comfortable back there," Buckner said. "Even for a young guy, he can make those really hard throws. We can't have him sitting back there playing seven on seven."

What it all means

Here's what you need to know: If the Colts win on Saturday, they make the playoffs as at least a wild card team. 

If the Colts win and the Jacksonville Jaguars lose at the Tennessee Titans at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Colts win the AFC South for the first time since 2014. In this scenario, the Colts would be the AFC No. 4 seed and host the No. 5 seed Cleveland Browns at on Wild Card Weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

If the Colts and Jaguars both win, then the Colts' playoff seed would be determined by the winner of Sunday night's Buffalo Bills-Miami Dolphins game. If the Bills win, the Colts would be the No. 7 seed and would face No. 2 seed Buffalo in the wild card round. If the Dolphins win, the Colts would be the No. 6 seed and would face the No. 3 seed Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium next weekend. If the Bills and Dolphins tie, the Colts would be the No. 7 seed and would face the No. 2 seed Dolphins.

"Win and in, at home, primetime — come on, there's nothing else to be said," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "It's time to go get it."

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