INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis dominated the AFC South for nearly a decade.
With names like Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday anchoring the offense, and Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis solidifying the defense, the other division teams struggled to keep up with the champs.
Not anymore. The power dynamic has changed dramatically this season, a shift that will be on full display Thursday night when new champion, Houston, meet the old one.
“I think you always see a lot of change in the National Football League from one year to the next, but the key is, are you good enough as a team to have a chance to win every week?” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think we’re very much headed in that direction.”
The young Texans (10-4) are progressing.
They’ve lost starting quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries. They’ve played eight games without Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, who will miss the Indy game, too, with a strained left hamstring. They were without defending rushing champ Arian Foster when the season began, and Sunday, they were missing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
In years past, those absences would have decimated Houston. This season, the Texans have already clinched the franchise’s first home playoff game, dethroned a team that won seven of the previous eight division crowns and at 10-4 is playing for a first-round bye. That’s not good enough yet.
“We want to prove ourselves every time we got out on the field,” linebacker Brian Cushing said. “I think any player, any team that wants to be good is going to do that.”
Indianapolis, in contrast, is a team in transition.
While Sunday’s victory finally allowed the Colts (1-13) to end comparisons with the NFL’s only 0-16 team, the 2008 Detroit Lions, bigger questions loom.
Fans want a new coach and changes in the front office.
Mathis, Saturday and Wayne all have expiring contracts and Manning’s health is still in doubt following the most invasive of his three neck surgeries.
On Sunday, team vice chairman Bill Polian said the four-time league MVP would not play in the team’s final two games. On Tuesday, coach Jim Caldwell said Manning would not participate in any full team workouts this season, though Manning is expected to throw before or after team practices. And now the team must decide whether to pay Manning’s $28 million bonus due in early March, allow him to become a free agent or redo the five-year, $90 million deal he signed in July.
Complicating those choices is the likelihood Indy will have the No. 1 overall draft pick, a slot expected to be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
So Thursday night could be the final home game for Manning, Mathis, Saturday and Wayne.
“I don’t know if you can call it the end of an era,” Freeney said. “You look at the changes on any team and there’s always differences from year to year. Sometimes what you call a cornerstone may leave a team, and that has happened in the past. But you never really know if it’s the end of an era till it’s over, you know?”
Some believe a healthy Manning will return to Indy in 2012, no matter the cost or whether the roster includes Luck.
The other choices are more complex.
Wayne turned 33 last month and, without Manning, is having his least productive season since 2002. Mathis, who will be 31 in February, is second on the team with 6½ sacks and has played well this season. Saturday has been a perennial Pro Bowler and one of Manning’s closest friends, but Indy almost let him leave in 2009 before freeing up enough salary cap space to bring him back for three more years.
“I can’t talk to you about them in short term,” Caldwell said when asked to reflect on the contributions of Mathis, Saturday and Wayne. “I’ve been here 10 years. They’ve all been instrumental. I could tell you a (long) story about each guy. They’ve won a lot of football games and as a group their efforts have been fantastic. Good group and great players.”
But if the Colts embark on a major rebuilding project, they may not want the 30-something players back.
Those who have faced uncertainty in the past, such as running back Joseph Addai and kicker Adam Vinatieri, have one suggestion: savor every last moment.
“I definitely did,” said Vinatieri, who re-signed with the Colts after the lockout ended in July. “The people who don’t think that way maybe should, because you never know if that might be your last time on the field.”
Houston is in a much different situation with only five players older than 30 — recent free agent acquisitions Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia, kicker Neil Rackers and punter Matt Turk and running Derrick Ward.
It’s a team built to dominate the future, if the Texans can maintain their hold on the Colts and the rest of the division. That mission continues Thursday in a city where the Texans have never won.
“Each and every person here on this defense is focused on that and executing our defense the way we know how to execute it,” defensive end Antonio Smith said. “The Colts can be whatever the Colts are going to be. We’ve got a job to do.”