The Indianapolis Colts have clinched the AFC South, but they're hardly playing their best heading into the final three weeks of the season.
They've been anything but lackluster when facing the Houston Texans, who have dropped all 11 meetings in Indianapolis.
The Texans will try to snap that skid and an 11-game overall losing streak when they play their first game under interim coach Wade Phillips on Sunday.
Although Tennessee's loss at Denver on Sunday handed Indianapolis (8-5) the division crown, coach Chuck Pagano said he can't afford to rest starters following a 42-28 loss at Cincinnati.
"'We talked and said, 'They gave us 16 games, we're playing 16 games,'' Pagano explained. 'Right now, we've got a lot of things to get better at. We have to go back to work and play good football, consistent football for 60 minutes.'
The Colts haven't scored a first-half touchdown in the last six games. They've been outscored 114-24 in the first 30 minutes over that span, which began a week after the loss of receiver Reggie Wayne to a torn ACL on Oct. 20.
Indianapolis has also struggled defensively, allowing an average of 32.2 points while dropping three of five. The Colts gave up 19.4 per game during a 6-2 start.
Indianapolis seems headed for the No. 4 seed, with AFC West leader Denver at 11-2, East leader New England at 10-3 and the North-leading Bengals at 9-4 and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Even if they can't move up, the Colts would like to regain their form from an early season in which they defeated San Francisco, Seattle and Denver.
'You never want to backdoor your way into it, but we won (the division),' NFL sacks leader Robert Mathis said. 'We're in there, punched our ticket to the playoffs. We just have to hit the switch.'
After throwing for an average of 237.0 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in his previous four games, Andrew Luck went 29 of 46 for 326 yards and matched a career high with four TDs against Cincinnati.
The second-year pro will try to build on that performance against a Houston team that has the second-best pass defense in the league, allowing an average of 183.6 yards.
Luck has not thrown an interception while tossing seven touchdowns in three career meetings with the Texans. Though he went 18 for 40 at Houston on Nov. 3, he threw for 271 yards and three second-half scores to T.Y. Hilton as the Colts rallied from 18 down for a 27-24 victory.
Hilton has 14 catches for 310 yards and five touchdowns in three career games against the Texans, while rookie Da'Rick Rogers could also play a large role after his 107-yard, two-touchdown effort last week.
The Colts' 11 straight home wins over the Texans have come by an average of 13.9 points, with the most recent one a 28-16 victory against the eventual AFC South champions Dec. 30.
This season has been a much different story for league-worst Houston (2-11), which dropped its 11th in a row by a score of 27-20 at Jacksonville last Thursday.
The Texans were penalized 14 times for a team-record 177 yards in the defeat before firing coach Gary Kubiak on Friday. They've turned things over to Phillips on an interim basis for the second time - the other when Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke at halftime Nov. 3.
'What's taken place with this organization is unacceptable,' general manager Rick Smith said. 'We've got three weeks of an evaluation process left and we've got to right the ship.'
Smith said he'd like to see what quarterback Case Keenum can do, and he's been named the starter against the Colts even though Kubiak benched him late in the third quarter last week.
Since throwing for 822 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his first three starts, the rookie has thrown for 770 yards with two scores and four picks over his last four. His best performance, however, came when he went 20 of 34 for a career-high 350 yards with three touchdowns against the Colts.
Star wideout Andre Johnson had nine catches for 229 yards - the second-highest yardage total of his career - with three touchdowns in that meeting. The six-time Pro Bowler has 46 receptions for 722 yards and six scores in his last five games against Indianapolis.
'A win for this team would be big,' Phillips said. 'The team's been uptight to me. All the pressure's been on them, they've put it on themselves and rightly so. Now we just have to go play.'
The Associated Press News Service
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