This is probably my favorite time of year for handicapping the NFL. So many regular season results seem random and disjointed, and yet once you’ve got 17 weeks worth of results to go on, everything seems to fall into place a little easier. The strengths and weaknesses of each roster are readily apparent, given such a large sample size.
It’s even more fortuitous when 2 division rivals are paired in a playoff round. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, there’s a home-and-home series record to go along with months of scores and stats.
But there can be pitfalls too. Division rivals know each other so well that even an apparent mismatch on the field can turn into a fierce struggle, given that coaches and players know so much about their counterparts. That familiarity tends to tighten the Vegas odds, even when the odds wouldn’t have been that disparate to begin with.
The AFC Wild Card Round meeting between the visiting Indianapolis Colts and host Houston Texans are no exception. Bookies opened point-spread markets giving the Texans a (-3) advantage, which is really the same as saying there’s no competitive edge for either team – just a noisy venue to disrupt the guest offense.
But the betting public, as usual, has its own ideas. Heavy action on Indianapolis-to-cover is driving the spread toward a potential pick’em scenario as the Saturday afternoon kickoff at NRG Stadium draws closer.
Who: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
When: Saturday, January 5th, 4:35 PM EST
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, TX
Lines: Indy (+1.5) at HOU (-1.5) / O/U Total: (48.5)
Much like the Dallas Cowboys of the NFC East, the AFC South runner-up Indianapolis Colts were left for dead sometime around mid-season. A 4-game losing streak left the inhabitants of Lucas Oil Stadium at 1-5, and a pair of breezy wins over Buffalo and Oakland prior to the club’s bye week seemed to do little except quiet the chatter about whether QB Andrew Luck could return to his pre-injury form.
But the victories weren’t anomalous. Soon the Colts were taking on stiffer competition – and winning again and again. Luck passed for 286 yards and 3 touchdowns as Indy beat Jacksonville 29-26, then showcased his chemistry with speedy WR T.Y. Hilton in a 38-10 stomping of Tennessee. Hilton and 2nd-year tailback Marion Mack would go on to dominate as the Colts won all but 1 of their remaining games to finish 10-6, buoyed by edge-rusher Denico Autry and a punishing defense that shut down the Dallas Cowboys in a 23-0 home victory on December 16th.
The winning formula has shown few cracks, but an injury to Hilton could represent an extremely ill-timed chink in the Colts’ armor. The receiver is listed “questionable” for the Wild Card game and did not practice Wednesday. Worse yet, a gigantic chunk of the WR corps is ailing:
The Colts have a long injury list heading into the wild-card playoff week, with five receivers banged up. (Indianapolis) listed receiver T.Y. Hilton (ankle), safety Clayton Geathers (knee), receiver Ryan Grant (toe), defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis (knee) and receiver Zach Pascal (knee) as missing practice.
Safety Malik Hooker (hip), receiver Daurice Fountain (ankle), receiver Dontrelle Inman (shoulder/finger), center Ryan Kelly (neck), defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard (knee), linebacker Anthony Walker (shoulder) and running back Jordan Wilkins (knee/ankle) were listed as limited. Hilton said his ankle was “starting to feel better” at the thought of playing the Texans, who he has had success against in his career.
In 14 career games against the Texans, Hilton has 76 catches for 1,445 yards and nine touchdowns. That includes 32 receptions for 734 yards and seven touchdowns in seven trips to NRG Stadium.
Obviously, given those stats, the star wideout is a crucial cog against the Texans. But Houston has its own injury problems. Saturday’s visitors are missing WR Demaryius Thomas along with a host of skill players and defenders.
The 3 most-important pieces of the Texans’ puzzle will be suiting-up however. Deshaun Watson has passed for over 4000 yards and is 2nd on the team in rushing, leading the team to an 11-5 record and a division crown in ’18. He’ll be passing to DeAndre Hopkins, one of the most prolific and dangerous receivers in the sport. J.J. Watt lurks on the defensive side of the ball.
Match-up problems could occur on the line of scrimmage if Houston falls behind early and is unable to get RB Lamar Miller cranked up. Watson has taken a brutal 63 sacks this season, some of which are a product of his creative scrambling and all-out effort on every play. But it’s still a worrisome number against a defense like Indianapolis.
The Texans and Colts split their season series 1-1 with a pair of 3-point decisions.
If the Colts were playing at home, I’d take Indy in a heartbeat. But in Space City the healthier offense will find a way to move the football, and dare Andrew Luck to push an ailing unit into the Red Zone against Mr. Watt. Injuries, turnovers and snap-reaction disadvantage are likely to hurt the slight underdog in a hostile environment.
However, I still think the W/L outcome could go either way and will depend on the breaks. Houston is the % play ATS, but a better wager is likely to be found on a live “over” bet at halftime.
No matter how banged-up each supporting cast, a pair of excellent QBs are likely to go for broke in the 2nd half after a cautious first 30 minutes. Wait for the O/U line to sink…and then venture an in-play for a winner.