Heading into the 2010 season, the Houston Texans had beaten the Indianapolis Colts one time. The Texans opened the season by beating the Colts at home and then later lost to them in Indianapolis to bring their franchise record to 2-16. It’s safe to say that the Texans have limited success against the perennial AFC powerhouse.
The Texans have the exact same opening game as last year, the Colts at Reliant Stadium for Week 1, but the feel is completely different. By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning is out for at least two to three months after undergoing his third neck surgery in 19 months.
There isn’t a consensus feeling among Texans fans as to how to react. Some have experienced jubilation and have written the game and even the division off. Some are eternal pessimists and assume the team will still manage to lose. Still others are lamenting the Manning injury because they feel a possible win and division crown would be sullied by a long-term Peyton absence.
First thing first though: The Texans must win the game on Sunday. NFL games are all about small-scale battles that will decide the course of the war. Below are the five matchups that are most important to the outcome of the game.
1. Johnathan Joseph vs. Reggie Wayne
The issue that has taken a back burner because of the Manning injury is that the Texans had the worst secondary in recent history last year. Joseph was brought in to immediately bolster that unit, and he will have one of his toughest matchups right off the bat.
Kerry Collins isn’t Peyton Manning, but he can still deliver the ball, especially deep. Joseph needs to prove that he was worth the money and shut down Wayne thus making Collins progress through his reads. Hopefully that extra time would give the pass rush time to do their job.
2. Mario Williams vs. Anthony Costanzo
Speaking of pass rush, this should be an interesting individual contest. On one side is Williams who has been the subject of intense scrutiny due to his position change to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. On the other side, Costanzo is a rookie making his first-ever start.
This might be just what the doctor ordered for Williams. Hopefully this gives him an easier matchup to ease into the position before he has to face outstanding tackle Jake Long in Week 2. Williams will be rushing from the weak side so there will be times he will go against right tackle Jeff Linkenbach as well, but that shouldn’t be any harder than Costanzo.
3. Duane Brown vs. Dwight Freeney
Manning might be out for Sunday, but one of Indy’s other elite players, Dwight Freeney, is unfortunately not. Brown, a good NFL left tackle, has had his toughest days at the hands of Freeney. Last year alone, Freeney had three sacks against the Texans in two games.
The difference this year is that the Texans appear to favor two- and even three-tight-end sets. For a speed-rusher like Freeney, this just makes the arc he has to run that much longer. Still, there will be times when Brown must line up in a one-on-one situation with Freeney. Hopefully he can keep Schaub clean.
4. James Casey vs. Gary Bracket/Kavell Conner
The Indianapolis secondary with corners Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers is suspect at best and will need safety help with All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson, and Owen Daniels will require a safety in coverage.
This leaves WLB Kavell Conner to cover Casey who lined up in the slot frequently in the preseason. The alternative is to bring in an extra defensive back which will cause Matt Schaub to motion Casey into the backfield and punish the Colts with the run. Either way, Casey is the key to personnel mismatches between the Texans offense and Colts defense.
5. Gary Kubiak vs. Himself
Those who watched the Saints vs. Packers last night saw what happens when coaches outthink themselves. Sean Payton got too cute on 4th-and-inches with a play-action pass, and ran the ball from the 1-yard line with no time left on the clock.
After Arian Foster ran for 231 yards against the Colts in Week 1 last year, Kubiak chose a pass-oriented game plan for their second contest. The Colts still have a terrible run defense, and whether Foster plays (he shouldn’t) or there is a committee of Ward, Tate and Slaton, he needs to run the ball early and often until the Colts prove they can stop it or the final whistle blows.
Those are my five key matchups for the game on Sunday, but what are yours? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).