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Thursday Night Football Preview: Will There Be Fitzmagic?

For once, a Thursday night game that doesn't look like a foregone conclusion. Who will come out on top of the AFC South?

It's almost a cliché at this point: Thursday night games are sloppy, one-sided affairs. Right?

Well, so far in 2014, that's certainly been the case. Through five weeks, no Thursday night game has been decided by fewer than 20 points. Over the last three weeks, the average margin of victory has been 35 points. Not exactly a formula for riveting entertainment, and certainly fuel to the fire for the large, vocal contingent of football viewers who've argued for years that the Thursday night games are bad for the sport.

It's worth mentioning that historically, Thursday games actually don't have a significantly higher margin of victory than games played on other days. And tonight's game should align a little more closely with that history than other games this year have, judging by the two teams involved. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts are both 3-2, and they've both got something to prove. The Texans look pretty good, considering that their two losses were suffered at the hands of teams with winning records (the Giants and Cowboys); they've also beaten the Bills, who have shown they're a team to contend with in 2014. That's mostly due to their excellent defense, which ranks first in the NFL in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (or NEP) with -13.32; their offense has been rather lackluster, ranking 25th with only 2.57 NEP.

Their lackluster performance on offense can mostly be credited to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who's put up pedestrian numbers so far, as well as an injury to stud running back Arian Foster that left him ineffective in one game and kept him out entirely in another.

The Colts, meanwhile, are in many ways the polar opposites of the Texans, ranking third in the NFL in offense and 19th in defense, per NEP. Andrew Luck has put together a tremendous season thus far, and it may be because he's eliminated the one factor that detractors have always pointed to: his inaccuracy. Luck has been downright elite in 2014, completing 68.1% of his passes through five weeks (compared to 60% in 2013 and just 54.1% in his 2012 debut). He ranks second in NEP among quarterbacks (behind only Philip Rivers), and he's on pace to well outstrip the Net Expected Points he compiled over the last two seasons, too.

Indianapolis also has to be happy with its production at running back, where the resurgent Ahmad Bradshaw has had a major comeback year (ranking fourth in NEP among running backs).

So what happens when we pit the electric Indy offense against the stalwart Houston D?

Nerd Alert

One answer might come from our strongest predictor game (a 90.4% match): a matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings, under the dome in December 2008. That game featured plenty of players who aren't too dissimilar to the guys we've got playing tonight. The Vikings had a mediocre quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson) and a high-volume running back (Adrian Peterson), while the Falcons were counting on a young franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan) and a veteran rusher wearing a new uniform (Michael Turner).

The Falcons (our ersatz Colts in this scenario) gave up over 300 yards of offense to the Vikings, including over 100 yards and two scores by tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (hashtag 2008) and a whopping 161 yards on the ground (mostly to Jackson). But the Vikings fumbled the ball an unbelievable seven times, losing four, which killed a handful of promising Minnesota drives.

That's particularly relevant to this game, because Ryan Fitzpatrick is tied for the league lead in interceptions, with six. He's also fumbled the ball three times. Match him up against an Indy defense that's tied for fourth in the league in takeaways (with 10), and you've got a recipe for disaster in Houston. If the Colts can put pressure on Fitzpatrick and force him to make mistakes from time to time, it'll likely be enough to counteract the considerable yardage they're likely to allow.

From Downtown!

Another one of our strongest predictor games points to another equalizer, one which could tip the balance: the long ball. In a November 2008 meeting of the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars (88.6%), the Jags took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at halftime, only to surrender 21 unanswered points to the undefeated (!) Titans in the second half. Four high-profile running backs were involved in that game - Chris Johnson, LenDale White, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Fred Taylor - and all four made a strikingly similar impact, each rushing for between 50 and 70 yards on between 12 and 17 carries. The quarterbacks played remarkably similarly, as well...with an asterisk. If you ignore two specific throws (more on that in a bit), Kerry Collins finished the game 11-for-21 with 136 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, while David Garrard completed 13 of 30 passes for 135 yards and an interception. Crazy, right?

Well, those other two passes Collins threw were touchdowns to Justin Gage - one for 38 yards, the other for 56. It just goes to show that in a nailbiter, you just can't account for plays that break the game wide open. This game has the potential to be a close one, too, albeit probably a more offensively-competent one, and much like turnovers, long passes are going to make an appearance in a big way. Both teams feature serious deep threats in youngsters DeAndre Hopkins and T.Y. Hilton, as well as veterans Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne, who have been known to get down the field, as well. The head-to-head matchup favors the Texans, as their great pass defense may stifle Andrew Luck's ability to throw deep, but keep an eye out for high-flying pyrotechnics on both sides of the ball tonight.

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