The Indianapolis Colts must take the tact Sunday that a desperate team is a dangerous team. There's no question the Houston Texans are desperate.
Confident, Super Bowl-contending teams don't ditch their healthy, supposed franchise quarterback at midseason. Yet Texans coach Gary Kubiak did just that.
Matt Schaub is out, Case Keenum is in.
That move probably makes Colts rush end Robert Mathis salivate, once he stops laughing, but he's wise enough to keep those emotions under wraps.
“He's a good athlete and he has a good arm,” Mathis said. “From his time when he played at (the University of) Houston, he kind of slings the ball around. Very good quarterback, so we've got our job cut out for us.”
The Colts (5-2) play the Texans (2-5) at 8:30 p.m. Sunday at Reliant Stadium, Houston.
Why would Kubiak stick with Keenum when Schaub is once again healthy and ready to play? Desperation. He doesn't call it that, of course.
Kubiak says he liked what he saw when Keenum filled in for Schaub – he completed 15 of 25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown in a 17-16 loss to Kansas City on Oct. 20 – and wants to explore where he and the team can grow further against the Colts. I don't doubt that's true. But it's also an indictment of Schaub's play leading up to Kansas City.
How many winning teams would stick with a backup quarterback after the starter returned from injury? 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did last season when he stayed with Colin Kaepernick instead of going back to Alex Smith. That's the only example of a winning team switching QBs that comes to mind.
Losing, desperate teams are much more likely to ditch the unsuccessful Plan A.
The Texans' move seems more about trying to use a huge change to flip a season spiraling out of control.
“Matt's a pro,” Kubiak said, describing the benching. “He's extremely disappointed. He's a competitor. He wants to be out there running the football team and I totally understand that. I expressed my feelings to him. He expressed his feelings to me. We're both grown men. But it's a tough decision.”
It's possible the move to Keenum could work in the Texans' favor if the Colts don't recognize the danger in desperation.
Through seven games, the Colts have played to the level of their competition, with outstanding performances against San Francisco, Seattle and Denver and forgettable moments against Oakland, Miami and San Diego.
That trend leads me to believe the Colts will struggle against the Texans, throwing in the Texans' desperation, their sometimes strong defense (looks better in stats than when Rams post 38 on the board) and the uncertainty surrounding the Colts' receiving corps without injured Reggie Wayne.
“When you turn on the film and watch their defense, it's the No. 1 defense in the National Football League (in total defense, including No. 1 versus the pass),” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. “It's a phenomenal team. I'm sure they're a bit disappointed at their record right now.
“We know, offensively, this is an incredible challenge against one of the premier players in the league in J.J. Watt,” Luck continued. “All of the other guys are phenomenal players. We have our hands full. We know that.”
Luck enters the game without his security blanket (Wayne) for the first time in his pro career. That roadblock shouldn't be underestimated. As good as Wayne's reputation is around the league, he's still somewhat underrated. The precision of his routes and the dependability of his hands has made him a favorite third-down target, first with Peyton Manning, now with Luck.
What happens now? Luck needs other receivers, whether Darrius Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton or tight end Coby Fleener, to step up. The third wide-receiver spot will be drawn from a relatively inexperienced trio of LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen and David Reed. Heyward-Bey was limited in practice Thursday by a hamstring issue.
They'll be stepping up against a defense that – for all of the Texans' struggles – has potential to be stout on any given Sunday.
“I don't think we'll miss a beat,” Luck said, perhaps trying to convince himself. “Maybe certain things, routes Reggie always got. There might be a couple of things in practice we might have to work on. I don't think we'll miss a beat when it comes to Sunday in terms of receiver production and production from our end.”
Defensively, the Colts must harness the Texans' running game and let Keenum know he's being watched. And pursued. And crushed.
“He's got moxie, he's got savvy, he's able to extend plays,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Going into one of the toughest venues in the National Football League (Kansas City) to play a game as a first-timer, he was as cool as a cucumber.”
Keenum will be playing with little to lose Sunday. He'll be playing with the freedom of a starting quarterback. He'll be playing with the abandon that comes with desperation.
The Colts can't let the Texans' desperation turn into production and momentum. Houston entered this season as the AFC South favorite. Somewhere, inside, if the Colts don't keep it contained, that persona could resurface.