Five to Watch: Colts at Texans

The Indianapolis Colts have an opportunity to put another nail in the AFC South coffin this weekend in Houston. To do so, they will have to defeat a Texans team that just lost a close game to the Tennessee Titans, putting them under immense pressure to win the rest of their games to have any chance at making the playoffs.

Whether their defeat to the Titans did more to break their resolve or add to it is probably irrelevant, as the Texans' desire to beat the Colts spans years. Last year, the Colts defeated the Texans in Houston, thanks in part to the shoddy play of backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels.

Earlier this year, the Texans lost in Indianapolis, despite the fact that they stayed with the Colts throughout much of the game and only after their place kicker missed from 42 yards.

The Texans have a lot to play for and have fresh wounds in their matchup with the Colts that will feed their intensity. The Colts will need to play solid football, on both sides of the ball, if they hope to continue their streak, and step closer to sealing a AFC South division championship.

1. QB Peyton Manning: Until such time as Peyton Manning and the Colts passing offense finds its way back to consistency, to the kind of synergy it showed early in the season, Manning will remain a permanent member of the "five to watch" before any game.

Last week, Manning threw two interceptions, both into double or triple coverage, both forced to his two favorite receiving options, both resulting in turning the ball over the Baltimore and allowing them to stay in the game.

As odd as it is to say, the Baltimore game was only close because of Manning's turnovers, and without them it would likely have been a three-possession game that would strongly favor the Colts throughout. He will need to stay disciplined in his reads, not force passes to obvious targets against a division opponent who knows his tendencies, and not commit unnecessary mistakes if he hopes to beat the Texans again this year.

Clearly, Manning is having one of the best seasons of his career, as a whole. Lately, however, he has been making more mistakes, forcing longer passes, and has been personally responsible for making games much closer than they should have been.

2. DE Dwight Freeney: For the last two weeks Freeney has been held without a sack, and has been limited in his ability to put regular pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He has still showed the ability to push the pocket, and generate pressure, but opponents have been putting more emphasis on keeping him off of the quarterback and have been finding relative success.

If the Colts hope to neutralize the impact of Matt Schaub and his favorite receiver, Andre Johnson, the pass rush will play a key role. Freeney will need to find ways to get to Schaub like he did in week nine to help the secondary limit the Texans passing attack and force them into a one-dimensional game plan early.

If Manning and the offense do what they are capable of doing, and Freeney and the Colts pass rush is able to keep Schaub on the run, the Colts will have an opportunity to get on top early and play to their strengths.

3. CB Jerraud Powers: Jerraud Powers has been playing like a veteran defensive back for weeks now, and will need to continue to show his maturity and discipline if he hopes to limit Andre Johnson.

There is an obvious physical mismatch between the two, Powers gives up five inches and nearly thirty pounds to Johnson, so he will need to use his speed, quickness, vision, timing, and leaping ability to be effective as he attempts to keep the ball out of Johnson's hands.

If Powers' performance against Derrick Mason and the Ravens last week is any indication of what fans can expect to see, he should frustrate Johnson enough to give the Colts pass rush more time to pressure Schaub.

4. TE Tom Santi: For the first time this season, Tom Santi took the field against the Baltimore Ravens and played the part of an offensive secret weapon. Whether Santi earned himself the opportunity to play in front of long-time starter Gijon Robinson again this week is yet to be seen.

Moreover, Santi made some mistakes against the Ravens that he cannot afford to repeat. The fumble on the Ravens goal line is not something Manning, Moore, Caldwell, or anyone in the Colts organization will stand to see on a regular basis. The dropped pass and false start near the end of the game also are black marks on his otherwise impressive individual receiving and blocking performance.

Still, Santi was often on the field in place of Austin Collie and the Ravens did not have an answer to another large receiving option with soft hands opposite Dallas Clark in the slot. How Santi will be used, when he will be used, and what the Texans have done to prepare for his role in the offensive game plan will be interesting to watch.

5. LB Philip Wheeler: The Colts run defense has improved tremendously from a year ago, and even from early in the season. Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, Gary Brackett, and Clint Session have really started to work well together attacking the gaps and meeting ball carriers for only short gains.

The "X-factor" for the run defense, at this point, has to be the unproven contributions from second-year linebacker Philip Wheeler. For much of the season, Wheeler has been a steady special teams contributor, helping the coverage teams improve immensely from last season. Wheeler has not done much in his first few weeks as a starter on defense that would give fans and coaches confidence that he will add to the strong core the Colts run defense has started to develop.

If the Colts can generate a pass rush, and if the Texans are forced to focus on their ground game early on, Wheeler will need to prove that he is not the hole in the Colts defense that allows Houston to control the ball and the clock. His development, particularly in a meaningful division game, has long-term implications for the Colts defense as it approaches a potential playoff berth.

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