Almost a year to the day, the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans will get reacquainted on a Thursday night at NRG Stadium.
On Oct. 9, 2014, the Colts held off a Texans comeback for a 33-28 road triumph. If any team knows the short-week routine, it’s the Colts, who are 8-0 when playing on a Thursday after a Sunday game.
It’s the fourth consecutive year the Colts have played a Thursday night game on the road.
“They say they throw it in a computer and it generates 20 million different scenarios and it’s fair and all that stuff,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. “It’s just what happens.”
Asked if he’s not happy about his team repeatedly thrust into that quick turnaround, Pagano smiled and said, “I’m just happy to be coaching game five. It’s a blessing. I don’t care where it’s at. It could be on Mars.”
This time, the Colts (2-2) venture to the Lone Star State literally battered and bruised with quarterback Andrew Luck nursing a sore right shoulder. But Pagano’s team has been able to endure with back-to-back wins against AFC South foes Tennessee and Jacksonville. Another win would set an NFL record for a 16-game division win streak.
The Texans (1-3) are coming off an ugly 48-21 loss at Atlanta. Quarterback Ryan Mallett has struggled, but has been announced as the starter. Running back Arian Foster is in his second game back from a groin injury.
While the short week is physically demanding on the players, Foster was playful on a conference call when asked if he’s spoken to former teammate Andre Johnson, the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who signed with the Colts in the offseason.
“Yeah, he already gave me the entire game plan,” Foster joked, “so I appreciate that from him.”
Neither team’s plan should be much of a surprise. Presuming Luck returns to the lineup after missing the first game of his career on Sunday, the Colts must protect him from Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt, among others. The Texans, conversely, will try to rely upon Foster to take the pressure off Mallett, who has completed just 51.8 percent of his passes.
“Schematically, they’re the same as they were last year,” Foster said of the Colts’ 3-4 defense.
If anyone knows how to humble the Colts, it’s Foster. He’s had five career 100-yard games against them. In two games last season, he ran for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
“The Thursday night games, guys get up for that,” said Colts inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who has an NFL-best 47 total tackles. “There’s little whispers about this quick turnaround, but you know what, when you know you have a game to play that adrenaline takes over.”
There’s also the matter of how the Colts deal with Watt, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-Pro first-team selection. In last year’s game at Houston, Watt was a one-man wrecking crew as he returned a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown in addition to two sacks and seven tackles.
The Colts have committed a league-high 12 turnovers and are a league-worst -9 in turnover ratio. The Texans, incidentally, are next on that dubious turnover-ratio ranking at -6.
If anyone enjoys this road trip, it's wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who had nine catches for 223 yards and one score in last year’s trip to Houston. The year before that in the same stadium, Hilton caught seven passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns. As a rookie, he caught three passes for 78 yards and one touchdown at Houston.
“He’s a game changer for us,” Pagano said. “He’s a big play guy. He’s going to have to play huge Thursday night. Again, we’re going to need chunk plays. We’re going to need big plays against this defense. Excellent, excellent football team, but a really good defense. To say we’re going to methodically move the ball down field 10-, 12-play drives over and over again, it’d be a tall order for our guys to do that. You’ve got to make some big plays. Fully except T.Y. to do that again. He’s going to garner a lot of attention like he always does, but we’ve got to find a way to get him free, get him loose in the back end and get him matched up to where he can make some plays for us.”
The Colts will get at least two players back from injuries as cornerback Greg Toler makes his season debut after being sidelined with by a bruised neck disc and tight end Dwayne Allen returns after missing two games with an ankle injury.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Pagano said of the quick turnaround, “but our guys are gritty guys, as we like to call ‘em. They’re tough, a resilient bunch.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.