Colts, Texans ready to pin playoff hopes on high-stakes game
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen embraces Sunday's game against Houston.
Yes, he and his teammates realize the winner takes control of the AFC South and has the inside track to the playoffs. He also knows the loser could spend the rest of the season playing catch-up.
To Allen, this is football at its finest.
''A lot of people came up to me before the Monday night game and asked me if it was exciting to play on `Monday Night Football'. It's an exciting stage to be on, but it's just another game,'' he said.
''Now this game, it's exciting. It's like (receiver) T.Y. Hilton said, it's a Game 7 atmosphere. You win this one, you take first place and you control your destiny so to speak.''
While the Colts and Texans are tied with Tennessee (6-6) for the division lead, nobody understands the significance of these late-season matchups better than Indy and Houston.
Each of the past four years, the winner of the mid-December game won the AFC South title.
Because of the tiebreakers, it could be more of the same this season. Indy has already swept the Titans, Houston won Round 1 with Tennessee and the Texans used a frenetic comeback to beat the Colts in overtime in October.
So although this may be the next chapter in a growing rivalry, the players on both teams acknowledge this week will have a different atmosphere.
''It certainly feels like a playoff game. I know personally our football team knows how important this game is,'' said Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who played on Denver's Super Bowl-winning team last season.
''We know that it's a must-win game if we want to accomplish the goals that we set out.''
But the Colts may actually have more at stake.
They've been chasing everyone since starting 0-2 and finally got back into contention by winning three of their past four.
If they intend to stay in the playoff hunt, they can't afford to get swept by the Texans and cede the head-to-head tiebreaker, especially against a team that has lost three in a row.
''We know how big of a test this Houston game is,'' said Andrew Luck, who attended high school in Houston.
''We know how stingy of a defense, I think they are top five in the league, No. 1 against the run and at least the last four weeks have been playing really good football. We will have our hands full.''
Here are some other things to watch Sunday:
THE HILTON EFFECT: Hilton's success always seems to be a big factor in these games. In his first five games against Houston, Hilton had 31 catches for 611 yards and six TDs. In the past four, his numbers dropped to 15 receptions, 216 yards and no TDs.
In 2016, Hilton is having the best season of his career and leads the AFC with 1,088 yards, but the Colts need him to revert to the early form he had against Houston.
TAKING A PASS: Perhaps Osweiler hasn't had the kind of season the Texans anticipated. He's thrown 14 TD passes and 13 interceptions, and the Texans are ranked No. 30 in yards passing and still don't have a 300-yard game.
Perhaps facing a Colts' secondary that has been battered most of this season will be the cure.
THE INSIDERS: With inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson suspended for the final four regular-season games for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substance policy, the Colts need to replace their top tackler. Indy's depth chart is short on experience. Edwin Jackson, who did not play in an NFL game until this season, and rookie Antonio Morrison will call signals.
The other options are Josh McNary, who has played primarily on special teams; Deon King, who was claimed off waivers Nov. 15; and Luke Rhodes, who was promoted from the practice squad earlier this week.
INJURY WATCH: Even the Texans aren't sure which defensive players will be on the field. Former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney (elbow and wrist) missed Sunday's game and, similar cornerback Jonathan Joseph (ribs) is considered day to day.
Linebackers Brian Cushing (back and ankle) and Bernardrick McKinney (thigh), cornerback Kareem Jackson (hamstring) and nose tackle Vince Wilfork (groin) all were limited in practice earlier this week. Getting some or all of those players back would certainly help.
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