INDIANAPOLIS — This is the stuff rivalries are made of.
The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans have split the past four AFC South titles. In 2011, when the Colts were on their way to the worst record in the NFL, they beat the Texans 19-16 to cost them homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. In 2013, when the Texans were on their way to the worst record in the NFL, they took a 21-3 lead against the Colts in the first half before falling victim to a classic Andrew Luck comeback.
Houston scored a 29-17 decision in December 2012 to wrap up its second division title, and Indianapolis followed two weeks later with a 28-16 victory at home to welcome back head coach Chuck Pagano. The victory cost the Texans a first-round playoff bye.
Houston is led by one of the most celebrated young defensive players in the league in defensive end J.J. Watt. Indianapolis is led by one of the game's most celebrated young offensive players in Luck.
The Colts have won five of the past eight meetings overall, but Houston is 3-1 at home — where tonight's edition of the annual series will be staged. With the division lead on the line. Of course.
"I think that's always good within the division, and that's good for the NFL," first-year Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said of the budding feud. "Andrew Luck is just a fantastic quarterback. From a guy who coaches that position and has really enjoyed being around that position for a long time, I have a lot of respect for him and what he does playing-wise. And then obviously J.J., what he brings to our team, what he means to this organization, how he's played this year, it should be a fun night on Thursday night."
The vagaries of a short practice week in the NFL have led to a series of blowouts to start the Thursday Night Football schedule this year. The five previous games have been decided by an average of 29 points, and that number jumps to 31.3 if the season-opener — that was not played on short rest by either team — is discarded.
Home teams have won four of those contests, and that could give Houston (3-2) some hope. But Indianapolis is 8-0 all-time playing on the road on short rest on Thursday nights.
"I think guys are a little bit used to it now," Luck said, noting the Colts (3-2) have traveled for Thursday night games in each of the past two seasons. "And it is a challenge. It is a physical, mental, emotional challenge, but it is what you sign up for. Guys aren't complaining about it around here. It's sort of equal footing for both teams. I don't think that travel is necessarily a disadvantage. I just think it's part of the deal. You've got to go out and play."
Indianapolis must do that without a pair of starters on the offensive line.
Left guard Jack Mewhort will miss his second straight game with an injured ankle, and right guard Hugh Thornton has been ruled out after re-aggravating a back injury. Joe Reitz is expected to replace Mewhort on the left side, and Lance Louis likely will make his second start in three weeks in place of Thornton and his third consecutive start overall.
The reshuffled offensive line faces a big challenge against Watt and a stout Texans front seven.
"It's not just him, it's everybody," Reitz said of the prospect of facing the AFC's reigning defensive player of the month. "They've got some really, really good players, and they've got a new defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel). They've got a great scheme."
The Colts lead the league in time of possession with an average of 36 minutes, 24 seconds per game and have directed a league-high 13 drives that took five minutes or more off the game clock.
Houston hopes its defense can get off the field more quickly, and it will try to eat up some clock of its own with a rejuvenated Arian Foster.
The 28-year-old running back has averaged 125.3 rushing yards in six games against Indianapolis, and he's coming off a 157-yard, two-touchdown performance at Dallas on Sunday.
"He has it all," Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "He's definitely one of those guys that can make every cut, especially with that system that they're running, and he's looking as good as ever right now."
So is Indianapolis, which has won three straight and leads the league in scoring offense.
Tonight's victor will have a leg up in the race for the division championship and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it. That's an advantage it's never too early to start thinking about.
"They're going to be fighting tooth and nail just like we are for first place in the division," Pagano said. "I'd rather be, come Thursday at whatever time it will be, 10:30, 11 o'clock, I'd rather be in first than any other place and then move on from there."