From 2002 to 2010, the Indianapolis Colts pretty much ruled the AFC South. Indianapolis captured seven division crowns during that time and finished second twice to Tennessee.
Last year, while the Colts were going through a 2-14 campaign, the Houston Texans — who had been long on talent for several seasons but hadn’t been able to wrest control of the division from Indianapolis — won their first AFC South crown.
Heading into this season, it was thought that Houston would be able to control the division for the next several seasons. After all, the Colts were in the middle of what was thought to be a somewhat-lengthy rebuilding project. Tennessee and Jacksonville, meanwhile, have been battling consistency issues.
But heading into Sunday’s game at Reliant Stadium, the Colts are — again — right on the heels of Houston. The Texans (11-2, 4-0 in the division) need one win to annex the AFC South crown. Indianapolis (9-4, 3-1) needs to win its final three games to wrap up the division. One win over the final three weeks of the season will pretty much clinch one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths.
“It’s a conference game, division game. Division championship basically on the line. It’s what you look for, a chance to play for your division title in December. A chance to play for your division title,” Colts interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said after Friday’s practice. “If you can’t get excited about that, you shouldn’t be playing.”
Texans coach Gary Kubiak knows the importance of Sunday’s game, especially after Houston was defeated by New England 42-14 this past Monday night.
“The only thing I can say is when you line up against a football team of [the Patriots’] magnitude and you make some mistakes, it can get out of hand pretty quick. Obviously, we had opportunities early in the game to make some plays and sit there and battle with them and we didn’t make them on either side of the ball, and you’re down 21-0 on the road in a tough environment,” Kubiak said this week.
“No excuses. We didn’t do the things necessary to give ourselves a chance to win. It wasn’t in one area or two areas; it was across the board.”
So which Texans team will show up Sunday? The team that won 11 of its first 12 games and looked like the best team in the AFC or the team that stumbled badly in front of a national audience at Gillette Stadium?
“The biggest thing you need to learn to be a consistent franchise is that when you’re doing things well, you can’t listen and you’ve got to keep going and go to the next week. When things don’t go so well, you can’t listen either. You’ve got to refocus and play the next game,” Kubiak explained.
“It’s a tough, tough league. Every [week], there’s 16 teams that have it going on and 16 teams that don’t. You’ve got to be able to handle all that and stay focused on your football team and what you’re trying to get done and be committed to the long haul. That’s what we’re trying to do. Obviously this is Game 14, so [there’s] still a lot of football to be played and we’ve got to stay focused on ourselves.”
As for the division coming down — once again — to the Texans and Colts, the Houston coach doesn’t seem to mind.
“Yeah, [Indianapolis] had a stranglehold [on the division], I guess that’s a good word. If there’s anything stronger, you could use that too. They took care of this division for a long, long time. They’ve been exceptional and they’ve regrouped and done a hell of a job putting a team together right now that’s playing exceptional right now also,” Kubiak said.
“Last year’s gone. We’ve got to worry about this year. Like I said, we’ve got some big, big games coming up here against [the Colts] and none bigger than this week.”
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n Injury list — Safety Tom Zbikowski (knee), offensive tackle Winston Justice (biceps), running back Delone Carter (ankle), inside linebacker Kavell Conner (hamstring) and center Samson Satele (ankle) have been ruled out of the Houston game and will not make the trip.
The rest of the Colts’ walking wounded — wide receiver Donnie Avery (ribs), offensive guard Joe Reitz (head), tight end Coby Fleener (ankle) — are all expected to be game-time decisions but should play.
As of now, first-year center A.Q. Shipley will start for Satele, Jeff Linkenbach will replace Justice at right tackle and Reitz will start at left guard.
“We cannot, obviously, afford any injuries to our offensive line in this ballgame. Our front will be pretty thin,” Arians said Friday, adding that Indianapolis’ run of injuries along the offensive and defensive lines, at running back and in the secondary has taken a toll.
“You can’t say enough about what [general manager] Ryan [Grigson] has done [in finding replacement players]. Next man up left about three weeks ago. It’s next man in the building now.”