The NFL makes a conscious effort to schedule division games in the last weeks of the regular season. The league does this with the hope that these last few weeks of the season will carry significant weight, and that the division games will have a direct impact on playoff spots and seeding. By scheduling the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts to play twice in the last three weeks of the season, the schedule makers accomplished that goal with the AFC South this season.
The Texans enter the game at 11-2 with a one game lead for the number one seed in the AFC. The surprising Colts head to Houston at 9-4 and are currently the number five seed in the conference. Both teams have clinching scenarios this week. For the Texans, who have already clinched a playoff spot, a win would give them their second consecutive AFC South division title. For the Colts, a win would clinch an improbable playoff berth for a team that was the worst in the league last season at 2-14.
Despite having already faced the likes of the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, and the Chicago Bears, these two upcoming games vs the Colts will be the biggest the Texans play in the regular season. While those other match-ups were either in prime-time or more hyped, Houston’s 2012 regular season goals will come down to Sunday at Reliant Stadium and week 17 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
First, let’s look at the magnitude of Sunday’s game. A win by Houston would clinch the division and keep them in front of the Patriots for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Texans have a one game lead over New England, but must stay in front of them to retain the number one seed. The Pats own the tiebreaker thanks to the trouncing they put on the Texans Monday night.
Should the Colts pull the upset Sunday, not only will they punch their ticket to the post-season, but they will also be able to set their sights on sneaking up and stealing the division from Houston. As improbable as that would seem, the math is simple. A Colts win would put them one game behind the Texans with two games to play. It also will very likely set up a winner take all game for the AFC South title in week 17, a scenario Houston wants to avoid. Houston wants to be playing for something in the season finale, but not for the division.
Even if the Texans win Sunday and wrap up the division, the week 17 game will still loom large. The Colts will either still be playing for a spot in the playoffs or to improve their seeding. That something that the Texans would be playing for is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Assuming that the Patriots do not lose, which is very likely as they will be favored in their three remaining games, the Texans will not have the luxury of resting their starters. Instead, in order to finish with the top spot in the AFC, they will have to do something that they have never done in franchise history, win in Indianapolis.
Houston is 0-10 in the capital city of Indiana, 0-4 at Lucas Oil Stadium and 0-6 at the old RCA Dome. It has already been a season of firsts for the Texans in this their tenth anniversary season. It will only be fitting that for them to finish first in the conference for the first time, that they will have to beat the Colts on the road for the first time. The picture is clear for the Texans. Beat Indianapolis on Sunday, clinch the division for the second consecutive season. Win in Indianapolis in week 17, clinch home-field advantage and avoid having to return to New England or Denver in the playoffs. When and where the Texans will be playing in January will all come down to two December games vs the Colts.
Good job schedule makers, good job.