As they prepared for a trip to Massachusetts last week, the Houston Texans were measuring themselves against a perennial standard for AFC excellence. But as they head home this weekend to meet a suddenly relevant division foe, they're simply hoping to hang on to what they had.
The Texans enter Sunday's game against the second-place Indianapolis Colts with the luxury of a two-game lead in the AFC's South Division, but they're well aware that any lingering hangover from the 28-point loss in New England could result in an unwanted halving of that standings lead.
To make things more urgent, Houston visits Indy to end the regular season in two weeks.
"We still control our destiny," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We control everything. We are going to go back and focus on winning the division and locking that up. Everything is still in front of us."
It's true, while the Texans can indeed secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with three more wins, the Colts could guarantee the South for themselves if they finish with three straight Ws.
Indianapolis breaks up the Houston home-and-home with a trip to Kansas City next week.
"There is no doubt that (Houston is) the top horse right now," interim coach Bruce Arians said. "We've got to go in there and knock them off."
Barely removed from last season's 0-13 start and 2-14 finish without an injured Peyton Manning, the Colts have won seven of their last eight games -- including three in a row since a similar blowout against New England -- and are close to becoming just the second team in league history to lose at least 14 times in one season before reaching the playoffs in the next.
Miami did it in 2008, going from 1-15 to AFC East champions.
Indianapolis has ridden to the brink on the rookie right arm of No. 1 overall quarterback Andrew Luck, who's already engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks and brought the Colts back from 13 points down at halftime to a 27-23 last week against Tennessee.
Eight of their nine wins have been by a seven or less points.
"Everybody on the team -- offensively, defensively, special teams -- just plays football," Luck said. "They're not worried about the scoreboard too much, not worried about what's going on. They're aware of the situations and we just go out there and play football to the best of our abilities. It's just not overthinking all the situations."
While the team results have still been successful, Luck has been less precise in the back half of his inaugural NFL season, throwing 10 interceptions in his last five games and failing to complete 50 percent of his passes in the last two. The Titans held him to 196 yards and picked him off twice last weekend.
Protection may also be a pressing concern as injuries mount on the offensive line.
Luck, who's been sacked 32 times in 13 games, could be without one or more of the upfront amalgam of Winston Justice (biceps), Samson Satele (ankle) and Joe Reitz (head). And he's standing across from a quarterback-harassing specialist this week in Houston's Watt, who leads the AFC with 16 1/2 sacks.
Something of a release valve may exist in running back Vick Ballard, who ran for 94 yards against Tennessee. The Colts shelved Donald Brown with an injured ankle this week and are 22nd in the league on the ground with an average of 105.8 yards.
Houston is third in the NFL at stopping the run, with a stingy 90.8-yard average per game in spite of the 130 yards gained last week by the Patriots. But the Texans had been less formidable on defense even before the New England game, allowing averages of 467.3 total yards and nearly 37 points against Jacksonville and Detroit in close wins in weeks 12 and 13.
Meanwhile, coach Gary Kubiak is pondering additional cracks to an offense that's been held to less than 340 yards in consecutive games while converting just eight of 31 third downs.
"We've got issues," he said. "We've got to stop people better, we've got to move the ball better and we've got to get rid of penalties on special teams. We've got to play better than we've played."
Running back Arian Foster, who's not been held to less than 100 yards in three straight games since his rookie season of 2009, has gone for just 84 yards on 29 carries in the last two -- though he's scored a touchdown in each and has four TDs in three games.
He's exceeded 100 yards in all three career games against Indianapolis, including a personal-best 231 in September 2010.
Indianapolis leads the all-time series, 17-3, and has won eight of the last 10 games. Most recently, the Colts won, 19-16, last December when Dan Orlovsky hit Reggie Wayne with the game-winning pass with 19 seconds to play.
Kubiak is 3-9 in his career against Indianapolis, while Arians has never faced Houston.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While it's true Luck has already climbed past several established NFL starters on the elite ladder, he's not faced the offense-stalling concoctions cooked up for years by Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who's surely licking his chops to get at a rookie passer.
Look for Watt to be his predictable disruptive force while Phillips adds blitzing menace from linebackers Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus. A jangled Luck has been a scattershot Luck throughout 13 games, as his 18 interceptions illustrate.
A few weeks ago, it looked as if the Colts' Cinderella story would be cut short after a decisive loss to the Patriots. Last week, the same appeared true when the Texans were routed before a primetime cable television audience. And just as Indianapolis has bounced back with three wins since, the Texans should dial up the defense and pound the ball on the ground enough to restart their AFC-leading tale here.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 17, Colts 13