INDIANAPOLIS – In the NFL, familiarity often breeds respect.
Week 7 contests don’t come much bigger than Sunday’s battle between the Houston Texans (4-2) and the Indianapolis Colts (3-2). The winner takes control of a tightly contested AFC South race at the midway point and gains a valuable tie-breaker advantage moving forward.
But the latest edition of the rivalry that kicks off at 1 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium has been relatively free of animosity.
There’s no doubt friction between these two franchises. Playing one another twice a year will create that.
In January, as the teams prepared for their first postseason meeting, some Texans defensive backs took exception to comments by Indianapolis wide receiver T.Y. Hilton about his continued success on their home field.
They called Hilton a “clown,” and he responded by walking into NRG Stadium on game day wearing a latex clown mask.
There’s been no such bickering this week. Instead, there’s just a showing of mutual admiration.
“I have a lot of respect for this football team in many ways,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “I think our two teams are built a little bit similar, and we approach things similar. I really have a lot of respect for the way they do their business.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach (Bill) O’Brien and their coaching staff. I think they do a great job, and I know our players are looking forward to this week.”
Just don’t take that as a sign this game will lack intensity in any way.
The Colts and Texans met three times in 2018. Indianapolis won the final two, including that inaugural playoff contest, but two games came down to the final possession.
The Colts won at Houston 24-21 in December when quarterback Andrew Luck induced defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney to jump offside and hand Indianapolis a first-down conversion that allowed the visitors to run out the clock.
It’s a testament to the speed with which the NFL changes that neither of those players will be involved in Sunday’s rematch. Luck is, of course, retired, and Clowney now suits up for the Seattle Seahawks.
The ending of the last meeting in Indy is even more infamous.
That game featured Reich’s fabled fourth-down gamble – an incomplete pass by Luck on fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard line. Quarterback Deshaun Watson completed a 19-yard pass immediately after, and Houston kicked a short field goal for a 37-34 overtime victory.
The players and the circumstances change. The drama usually does not.
“I think that holds true (with) 99 percent of all NFL games,” Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri said. “It’s always usually a one-score game no matter who is playing and who it is, but especially when you are playing a divisional team that you have a lot of experience with.
“They know us well. They match up personnel well with us, and they can try to take away some of your things. We try to do the same. Usually, it’s a hard-fought game that comes down to the wire, and I expect it to be again this week.”
That’s part of the reason Indianapolis’ struggles in the defensive backfield are so alarming.
Houston now has a trio of big-play wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. That’s a difficult enough combo to defend even at full strength.
The Colts will need to do it without cornerback Kenny Moore II and safety Malik Hooker, who are recovering from knee injuries. Cornerback Pierre Desir also will be a game-time decision after not participating in practice all week while dealing with a hamstring injury.
Indianapolis faced a similar challenge two weeks ago at Kansas City – playing without Hooker and fellow starting safety Clayton Geathers and losing Desir and Moore for a portion of the first half – but managed to hold the Chiefs to a season-low point total in a 19-13 win.
Youngsters like safeties Khari Willis and George Odum and cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin and Quincy Wilson could again be a big part of the game plan.
Desir will be a key component. If he’s able to go, the Colts can play more man coverage and lock him up one-on-one often against Hopkins.
“I certainly think when you show different coverages, if it’s a man matchup or just a true man, different types of man – I think when you give the variation of that, that certainly helps you,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “Now the key is that can you adjust week to week? And also just really do a good job disguising your intentions, which we’re always trying to do as well.
“Then being multiple with what you’re doing, but also being simple, so you can execute. We’re playing with a lot of young players at all levels. I think that it’s important that we do a good job of having that balance where you can be simple but also be multiple enough to be able to be effective.”
The same is true on offense, where Indianapolis has been run heavy thus far.
Marlon Mack is fifth in the NFL with 470 rushing yards, and he’s on pace for 323 carries this season. But Reich insists the game plan is tailored each week to the opposing defense, and there will come a day when quarterback Jacoby Brissett must lead the way with his passing arm.
That day could be Sunday. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is notoriously difficult for Houston to defend, and the Texans are dealing with injury issues of their own in the secondary.
All of which leads back to the respect between these two teams. O’Brien knows he’s going to see something new from Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
“I think that they are a game-plan offense,” he said. “So I think when you look from week-to-week, if they feel like they can run the ball, they are going to try to run the ball. I think they try to stay balanced from what I’ve seen on tape. I think they do a great job. I mean they are a very well-coached team.
“They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They are a very physical team. They do a good job both in the run and the pass. I think Jacoby does a great job of getting them into the right play, and he’s a very, very good quarterback.”