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INDIANAPOLIS – It's simple for the Houston Texans.
Win Sunday and they clinch the AFC's top seed.
Lose again at Indianapolis, with coach Chuck Pagano back on the sideline, and they may lose more than home-field advantage. The Texans could drop to a No. 3 seed and again open the playoffs in the wild-card round.
Clearly, the pressure is on Houston.
"We know what we need to do. We know what's at stake," Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson said. "We just need to go out and get it done."
This is not how it was supposed to be heading into the regular season finale.
Houston (12-3) was one of this season's AFC Super Bowl favorites, started 5-0, had the conference's best record all season and looked like a shoo-in for the No. 1 playoff spot after moving to 11-1 following a win over Tennessee on Dec. 2.
Since then, they lost what was billed as the most important game in franchise history, at New England, held off the feisty Colts to clinch the AFC South and lost last week at home to Minnesota. The latest loss dropped the Texans into a tie with AFC West champion Denver.
With the stakes increasing, Houston faces another potentially disappointing chapter in its most nightmarish series.
Ten times, the Texans have come to Indy. Ten times, they have gone home losers — including last December when the Texans captured their first AFC South title and the Colts were 1-13.
And while Houston knows what to expect from Andrew Luck and the Colts' defense, there are plenty of other uncertainties heading into the big game.
How will the Colts and their crowd respond to the inspirational return of Pagano, whose three-month battle with leukemia? Pagano took the reins back from interim coach Bruce Arians on Monday and presided over his first full practice Wednesday. On Sunday, he's expected to be back on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.
"I think Chuck gave us a little boost of energy," guard Mike McGlynn said. "Being late in the season, everybody is kind of beat up dealing with the season but having him back has kind of upped our energy for sure."
Who Pagano plays also has been a hot topic this week. With the Colts locked into the No. 5 seed and knowing they will open the wild-card round on the road against either Baltimore or New England, Pagano could rest whomever he wants for as long as he wants. He's already ruled out two injured players — center Samson Satele (ankle) and backup running back Delone Carter (ankle) — and has said a handful of others may sit out to recover from other injuries. He could also pull Luck, who has been sacked 40 times and hit dozens more.
Some wonder if he's been wearing down and could use a break.
The Texans may not be that fortunate.
"You want to win. You want to win at home. You want to go into the playoffs with momentum," Pagano said. "Regardless of how this team has gotten to the point that it's at right now being 10-5 and made the playoffs, we want to keep the momentum going and we want to keep these young guys coming on because they just keep getting better every week. To rest guys, so to speak, or pull back right now or I frankly don't think we have the numbers just doing the numbers and counting the guys, to rest anybody."
But the Colts still must figure out how to slow down defensive end J.J. Watt.
When these teams last met Watt finished with three sacks and was a continual menace to Indy's offense. He needs 2½ more sacks to break Michael Strahan's single-season record (22½). McGlynn called double-teaming Watt the simple approach and acknowledged the Colts have added some different schemes for the rematch.
The Texans have their own concerns.
Running back Arian Foster left last week's game with an irregular heartbeat, though coach Gary Kubiak said he took all the normal reps at practice Wednesday. And after two losses in three weeks, Kubiak needs to get things righted before the playoffs begin.
"It's about how you play when you get there, how you line up, how you play during that month," Kubiak said. "If you can find the magic and play good football, and we've played a lot of tough places this year, so it shouldn't bother us where we have to play. But we have to know how we have to play, and that's better than we played last week."
Starting in a city where the Texans have never won and in front of a crowd eager to celebrate Indy's historic turnaround and Pagano's emotional return.
Yes, for the Texans, Sunday will be a dress rehearsal for the playoffs.
"No matter who we're playing, where we're playing, how we've been historically in that place, or whatever the scenarios, we just want to play better football," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "That's all that we're counting on."
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