Game of the Week: Colts-Texans
The Colts have lost only once in 16 games to the Houston Texans
Indianapolis had the NFL's best September winning percentage the past decade
Houston has the offense to beat Indy but can its defense finally deliver
ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's Indianapolis at Houston game (1 p.m., CBS).
1. It's put-up-or-shut-up time for the Houston defense (and team management). Give Texans management credit. They certainly know their hopes lay with building a functioning defense. In fact, Houston has devoted incredible draft-day resources to its stoppers over the past six seasons. The problem has been making those picks count. In this area, the Texans have failed miserably.
In 2004, Houston's first seven picks went to defense. Remarkable. And since then, in all but one draft, the top pick was a defender. Those top picks include Travis Johnson, Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, Brian Cushing and, this year, Kareem Jackson, the star cornerback from Alabama's national title team of 2009.
Two high draft picks have even won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (Cushing last year and DeMeco Ryans, a second-round pick, in 2006).
But the Steel Curtain isn't exactly shaking in its boots when it looks at that collection of defensive draft picks: From 1969 to 1974, Pittsburgh drafted Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Dwight White, Fats Holmes, Mike Wagner and Jack Lambert. A defensive dynasty came in their wake.
Houston has zilch to show for its resources devoted to defense. The Texans have ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense just once in their brief history: 15th in 2004. Last year, even with Williams, Ryans and ROTY Cushing, Houston ranked 17th in scoring defense.
The curious part is that Houston has actually stumbled into a Super Bowl-caliber offense along the way (as you'll see below). If they could turn all those defensive resources into even a Top 8 unit, they could make some serious postseason noise.
2. Looks like Houston picked the wrong year to quit not having a franchise. Indy-Houston is, at least heading into Sunday, the most one-sided "rivalry" since Globetrotters-Generals. The expansion Texans entered the NFL, and the newly formed AFC South, in 2002 -- right as the Colts were hitting high gear in a period of unprecedented regular-season dominance (a record 115 wins in a single decade).
The results of the clash between powerhouse and Minnie Mouse have been understandably ugly: the Colts are an incredible 15-1 against the Texans. Houston's lone victory was a 27-24 home squeaker late in 2006. The chastened Colts took out their anger on the rest of the NFL that year. They followed the December defeat with five straight wins, including a victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
So this is a huge statement game for Houston. The organization and its fans have high hopes for 2010. But those expectations will fizzle early with yet another conquest at the hands of their overlords.
3. The Colts not only own the Texans, they own September, too. We'd like to take credit for these Cold, Hard Football Facts, but they actually came from the NFL itself.
The league this offseason calculated the best month-by-month winning percentages of the past decade. No surprise: the Colts and Patriots dominated all four months of the regular season. The Patriots were the best team in October (.707) and December (.804). The Colts were the best team in November (.721) and September (.813) -- Indy's out-of-the-gate mark was the best winning percentage by any team in any month over the past decade.
This trend is another one that doesn't bode well for the Texans, who have won just seven September games in their eight-year history (against 19 losses). That's a humble .368 winning percentage for those of you keeping score at home.
But upstart powers in the NFL must always overcome adversity, history and the odds to reach the next level. So look at this as an opportunity for the Texans: beating the dominant Colts, and doing so in the month in which they play their best football will go a long way toward building confidence in Houston.
A rare victory over the Colts, and a rare Indy loss in September, would also go a long way toward telling the pigskin public that this Texans team is different (i.e., better) than the previous eight.
The NFL is all about dominating the passing game, regardless of how well the running game performs. If your quarterback has a high average per pass attempt (the most important single stat in football) or a high passer rating (a clumsy but effective stat), your offense is in very good shape.
And, in this respect, Houston has a very big piece of the Super Bowl puzzle in place. The Texans obviously saw something in quarterback Matt Schaub when they traded for the former Atlanta clipboard holder before the 2007 season.
We doubt they anticipated the performance they'd get in 2009, Schaub's first year as a fulltime NFL starter. Thanks to the battery of Schaub-Andre Johnson (NFL leader in receiving two years in a row), the 2009 Texans were actually more effective than Peyton Manning and the Colts using our preferred indicator of passing success, Adjusted Passing Yards Per Attempt (which accounts for sacks). Only the 13-3 Chargers and Super Bowl champion Saints were more effective than Houston at moving the ball through the air.
Here's what the top five looked like last year in Adjusted PYPA:
San Diego -- 7.96 YPA
New Orleans -- 7.69 YPA
Houston -- 7.51 YPA
Indianapolis -- 7.35 YPA
Dallas -- 7.34 YPA
Notice something about that list? Each team but Houston won its division.
It gets even more promising for the Texans. Entering the 2010 season, Schaub has averaged an incredible 7.85 yards per attempt through the air (not adjusted for sacks). That puts him at No. 10 on the all-time list, right behind five-time champion Bart Starr and right ahead of Mr. QB himself, Johnny Unitas. Peyton Manning has averaged 7.68 YPA in his career, also among the best ever, but a good distance behind Schaub.
The Houston quarterback still needs 87 pass attempts to qualify for official NFL records (min. 1,500 pass attempts). But so far, his production has been prolific by any measure: so good, that Houston enters the 2010 season with a Super Bowl-caliber passing attack.
It's not PC in pigskin circles to praise the Indy defense. Anything short of prostrating yourself at the feet of the almighty Manning is considered gauche among NFL analysts. But the truth is that, over the last three years, the Colts have been a better defensive club than they have been an offensive club.
In 2007, Indy ranked 1st in scoring defense, and 3rd in scoring offense
In 2008, Indy ranked 7th in scoring defense, and 13th in scoring offense
In 2009, Indy ranked 8th in scoring defense, and 7th in scoring offense
The most recent trends have not been good, however. Indy's defense could barely force in an incompletion against Drew Brees in the Super Bowl, let alone make a big stop. And the preseason has been a disaster: the Colts surrendered 160 points, easily the most of any club, including 59 points in the Week 3 dry run against the Packers.
We think it all sets up nicely for a Houston team playing at home and desperate to show it belongs among the league's elite. Plus, I picked the Texans to not only make the playoffs for the first time in their history, but to edge out the Colts for the division crown, too. Like the Houston defense, it's time for the Cold, Hard Football Facts to step up and put our money where our mouth is:
Houston 26, Indy 24
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