Never mind that the Houston Texans will come into Sunday night’s nationally televised game with the Indianapolis Colts with a 2-5 record.
For Colts coach Chuck Pagano and his players, the Texans are the defending AFC South champions. In fact, Houston has won the division title the last two seasons.
“First and foremost, [this week’s game is] huge,” a determined Pagano stressed Wednesday. “We know, again, what our ultimate goal is. First and foremost, our No. 1 goal is to win the division. The road to winning the division goes through Houston. They’ve won it the last two years. We’ve got to go down there and play very, very well.
“Try to win this game in order to give ourselves a chance to win the division. Right now, our total focus is on Houston. We know that in order to give ourselves a chance to win the division, we’ve got to beat them.”
Sure, the Texans will be starting a young quarterback — Case Keenum — who will be making only his second career start and first home start.
Keenum replaces veteran Matt Schaub, who has battled inconsistency and injuries through the first half of the season.
And, yes, Houston’s top two running backs — Arian Foster and Ben Tate — are iffy for the Indianapolis game with hamstring and rib injuries respectively. In fact, a former Colts running back — Deji Karim — was signed earlier this week and may see extensive playing time Sunday.
Defensively, inside linebacker Brian Cushing is sidelined for the year with a torn lateral collateral ligament in his left knee/broken leg and safety Danieal Manning also is out for the season with a broken left fibula.
Still, there’s talent still available to help Keenum and the Texans, primarily wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins on offense along with defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith.
The Colts, though, maintain they aren’t taking anything for granted. They know that Houston, which also had a bye last weekend, will be primed for the Colts. And they understand that Keenum, who attended the University of Houston, will have a loud and vocal Reliant Stadium crowd behind him.
“We looked at his stuff from the preseason. Obviously his numbers in college speak for themselves. What he did [two weeks ago] at Kansas City was, I thought, outstanding. 15 of 25 for 271 yards and a touchdown. Looked comfortable,” Pagano related.
“The kid has moxie. He’s got savvy. He was cool under pressure. That’s a top-five [Chiefs] defense that he went against. Made big plays. He’s able to extend plays. He’s got enough arm talent to beat you. Enough weapons around him. We’ve got to do a great job, No. 1, of stopping the run, but No. 2 of trying to put pressure on him and get to him and make him as uncomfortable as possible.”
That won’t be easy. The Texans, despite all their injuries, have a pretty solid offensive line.
“If we had no body of work, I’d say it’d be tougher [to prepare for Keenum]. But at least we got a game that we can look at. Got enough preseason snaps that we went back and watched. They’re going to run their system,” the Colts’ coach said.
“He does a nice job of running their system. Big stretch-run team and boot team and things like that. He’s built for it and he’s a good player. Again, we feel like we’ve got enough there where we know exactly what he’s capable of doing.”
And Houston’s defense, which ranks first in the league for the fewest yards allowed per game (267.7) and in passing yards per game (145.6), will be tough even with the losses of Cushing and Manning.
“They’ve got able bodies. It’s next man up. They’ve played well with [Cushing] and they’ve played well without him. They’ve got a system in place and they’re going to run their system. So it’s next man up for him and they’ve got more-than-capable guys,” Pagano said.
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• Roster moves — The Colts re-signed tight end Weslye Saunders to the active roster, added offensive tackle Xavier Nixon to the practice squad and released cornerback Daxton Swanson from the team’s injured reserve list.
Saunders had been suspended for the first eight weeks of the season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance abuse policy.
“Wes served his suspension and obviously did a great job while he was away working out, staying in shape. Brought him in, worked him out and decided to make that move. Good to have Wes back in the fold,” Pagano said.
“We would have never done it if we didn’t feel like everything was behind him. He understands he’s been given a great opportunity again. [We] expect him to take full advantage of that opportunity.”
• Injury list — Sitting out Wednesday’s practice were cornerbacks Greg Toler (groin) and Josh Gordy (groin) and safety Delano Howell (neck).
Outside linebacker Cam Johnson (knee) had limited work. Center Samson Satele (knee) and rookie outside linebacker Bjoern Werner (foot) saw full practices.
Satele is expected to start against Houston. Werner’s availability will be a game-time decision.