A win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday would clinch a second straight AFC South title for the playoff-bound Houston Texans. A loss makes the division race much more interesting.
The Texans look to bounce back from a blowout loss and prevent the surging Colts from securing a playoff berth as these teams meet in Houston for the first of two meetings over the final three weeks.
Despite a 42-14 loss at New England on Monday, Houston (11-2) still has the AFC's best record and needs only a third straight home victory over Indianapolis to win the division.
"We still control our destiny," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We control everything. We are going to go back and focus on winning the division and locking that up. Everything is still in front of us."
However, if Indianapolis (9-4) wins Sunday, it would wrap up a playoff spot and put a division crown very much within its grasp. If the Colts win their final three games, including at Kansas City next week and at home against the Texans in the regular-season finale, they would claim the South title.
"There is no doubt that (the Texans are) the top horse right now," interim coach Bruce Arians told the Colts' official website. "We've got to go in there and knock them off."
Indianapolis has won three straight and seven of eight, moving in position to join the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to lose at least 14 games one season and make the playoffs the next.
Much of the turnaround has been attributed to Andrew Luck, whose six fourth-quarter comebacks are the highest single-season total by a rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. A week after Luck's two TD passes in the final 2:39 - including one as time expired - resulted in a 35-33 win at Detroit, he helped rally the Colts from a 13-point halftime deficit in last Sunday's 27-23 victory over Tennessee.
All but one of their victories has come by seven or fewer points.
"Everybody on the team - offensively, defensively, special teams - just plays football," Luck said. "They're not worried about the scoreboard too much, not worried about what's going on. They're aware of the situations, and we just go out there and play football to the best of our abilities. It's just not overthinking all the situations."
Though he's managed to come through when needed, Luck has been far from consistent of late. He's completed less than 50 percent of his passes in back-to-back games and has 10 interceptions over the past five, including two last week while throwing for 196 yards - his second-lowest total of the season.
Luck has been sacked 10 times in the last three games, raising his total to 32 - tied for third-most in the league entering Week 15. Add in starting offensive linemen Winston Justice (biceps) and Samson Satele (ankle) getting ruled out, and the Colts could face an even tougher time trying to protect Luck from a player like Watt, who leads the AFC with 16 1/2 sacks.
That uncertainty on the offensive line also could prevent rookie Vick Ballard from building on the career-high 94 rushing yards he recorded against Tennessee. The Colts, who placed second-leading rusher Donald Brown (ankle) on injured reserve this week, are averaging 105.8 yards on the ground to rank 22nd in the NFL.
Houston ranks third against the run, giving up 90.8 yards per game despite yielding 130 to the Patriots. Over the last four games, the Texans' strongest defensive performance came when they allowed 354 total yards in a 24-10 win at Tennessee on Dec. 2. In the other three, including overtime wins over Jacksonville and Detroit, they have yielded averages of 467.3 yards and 36.7 points.
Coach Gary Kubiak also is concerned with an offense which has stumbled in the last two games, getting held under 340 total yards in both while going 8 of 31 on third downs.
"We've got issues," Kubiak said. "We've got to stop people better, we've got to move the ball better, and we've got to get rid of penalties on special teams. ... We've got to play better than we've played."
Arian Foster has been limited to 84 yards on 29 carries in the last two games, but he had rushing TDs in both and four in the last three contests. He hasn't gone three straight games without rushing for 100 yards since his 2009 rookie season.
Foster has had 100-yard games in all three of his matchups with the Colts, rushing for 491 yards and 6.9 per carry with five touchdowns. He ran for a career-high 231 yards and three TDs in a 34-24 home win over Indianapolis on Sept. 12, 2010.
The Associated Press News Service
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