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Texans, Colts embrace Saturday's high-stakes game with playoff spot on the line

C.J. Stroud Houston Texans C.J. Stroud - The Canadian Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Houston coach DeMeco Ryans always anticipated his team's late-season trip to Indianapolis would look far different from their September matchup.

He never envisioned the storyline could change this much.

Sixteen weeks after the two new coaches — Ryans and Shane Steichen — were peppered with questions about their quarterbacks of the future, they're playing a high-stakes, prime-time game with more immediate consequences: Win or go home.

"We’re a completely different team now,” Ryans said. “You put the tape on and it’s like, 'Wow.’ I’m encouraged by how much better we’ve gotten. You kind of know who we are now. I think early in the year every team in the league is trying to figure out who you are, figure out your identity. How are you going to play?

"I think now, we know who we are.”

The Colts do, too.

With 9-7 records, Houston and Indy surprisingly find themselves in a three-way tie atop the AFC South with one of those teams a win away from ending their playoff droughts. Houston last made the postseason in 2019, Indy in 2020.

And if Jacksonville loses Sunday to Tennessee, Saturday night's winner also would take the division title and play another home game on wild-card weekend.

It's not just that Houston and Indy are playing a meaningful regular-season less than eight months after selecting new quarterbacks with top-five draft picks, it's how they got here.

Houston made it thanks to a historic first season from C.J. Stroud and a better-than-expected defense. He has thrown 21 touchdown passes, just five interceptions and is 156 yards from topping the 4,000-yard mark despite missing two games with a concussion.

Indy has relied on veteran quarterback Gardner Minshew since rookie Anthony Richardson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5. Minshew responded by winning six of his eight starts to pull the Colts out of the division cellar.

“You kind of build, you gel, the chemistry – like I said, it always starts in the middle of the season,” Steichen said. “Obviously, you want that stuff to keep rising up. I think that’s what our guys have done to put ourselves in the position we are in right now.”

The result: Two teams that were not projected to do much this season will square off in one of the most watched games on the NFL's final regular-season weekend.

“I told my teammates earlier, it’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were young, so nothing changes,” Stroud said. “We’ve got to just prepare hard and do everything we need to do to try to win this game and I think that will take us home.”


Stroud has been Houston's big star, but running back Devin Singletary also has proven to be a key cog in the Texans' offense.

Singletary, nicknamed “Motor,” replaced the injured Dameon Pierce in early November and played so well he kept the starting job even after Pierce returned.

Singletary has three 100-yard games in nine starts this season and had 80 yards in last week's big win against the Titans. He now has 1,026 yards in total offense — his third straight season over 1,000 yards. Singletary's best game came in Week 15 when he posted a career-best 170 total yards in a 19-16 overtime victory at Tennessee — as Stroud sat out with a concussion.


Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner would ride with the Indianapolis Colts' quarterbacks in any game. But Buckner also has been impressed with Stroud's development.

And while the Colts hope to get Stroud out of rhythm and force some mistakes, Buckner has seen enough in eight NFL seasons to recognize the challenge.

“He’s not afraid to make those big throws. He’s always looking downfield to make a big play," Buckner said. "He extends plays really well using his feet. He just knows how to get the guys going, he brings a lot of juice to the game for that team and we’ve got to do a really good job defensively and really just apply pressure.”


Houston rookie defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the No. 3 overall draft pick behind Stroud, returned last week after missing two games with an ankle injury. Though he was back on the field, he was not 100%, played limited snaps and still had two sacks.

“He has that relentless mindset that he’s going to be out there no matter what and he’s going to find a way to help us win games,” Ryans said. “Love Will for his mindset, love him for his toughness, and just his will to win.”

Anderson broke the Texans' franchise rookie record for sacks last week. With seven this season, he has now passed Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed, who each had six as rookies.


AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston also contributed to this report.