INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis and Houston started the season as the two best teams in the AFC South.
So perhaps Sunday's game playing a pivotal role in determining a division champion should have been expected.
The surprise will be the quarterbacks determining the crucial outcome -- Houston's T.J. Yates and either Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst for the Colts.
"I feel very fortunate that we've got Matt Hasselbeck," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said, sounding confident that Hasselbeck will be healthy enough to play this weekend. "He can play at a winning level, and he will play again at a winning level."
Without Hasselbeck, the Colts (6-7) might not even be in the playoff hunt.
He has won twice as many games this season (four) as the starter he replaced, Andrew Luck, and with Luck still recovering from a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle and ruled out of this week's game, the Colts are now pinning their playoff hopes to a 40-year-old backup who has been battered the past two weeks.
If he actually plays.
Hasselbeck left late in the loss at Pittsburgh two weeks ago after hurting his neck and shoulder and then was diagnosed with a mild separation of the ribs. Last week, in a loss at Jacksonville, he re-injured the ribs and spent the early part of this week with his left arm in a sling.
He returned to practice Thursday and while Pagano remains hopeful Hasselbeck starts -- and finishes --the game, Hasselbeck acknowledged that the hardest part has been breathing.
"I'm not in an incredible amount of pain, I just need to be able to play at a high level," he said. "That's the case at every position, but especially for me."
If he can't go, Whitehurst will.
Houston (6-7) has taken its share of hard knocks, too.
The Texans lost former NFL rushing champion Arian Foster in late October with a torn right Achilles tendon. They cut one-time starting quarterback Ryan Mallett two days after he missed a team flight. Two-time defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt, played last week after breaking his left hand in practice. And now starting quarterback Brian Hoyer is out after being diagnosed with his second concussion in less than a month.
That leaves their fate in the hands of T.J. Yates, who won his only start this season.
"He's a really bright guy, so now being here for a while, I think he has a really good grasp of our offense," coach Bill O'Brien said. "So we can do the things we need to do to help us beat the Colts."
But the better backup will probably give his team the inside track to a division title and a home playoff game, something everybody in both locker rooms understands in a high-stakes game.
"Things haven't been going our way lately but this is a must-win," Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "This is our playoff game and one that we have to have."
Here are some other things to watch in Sunday's game:
WATT'S CLUB: Watt has been one of the NFL's most dominant players but wasn't himself with the "club" cast protecting his hand last week against New England. And the Colts neutralized him in their first meeting, in October. If Watt returns to form this weekend, against left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who missed the last three games with a right knee injury, Houston's chances would increase.
DEFENSIVE DILEMMA: The last two weeks have been ugly in Indy. The Colts have been outscored 96-26, allowing Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles to throw for a combined 614 yards and seven TDs. They can't afford to have a repeat against Yates and the Texans.
NO CLOWNING AROUND: Last week, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, sacked Tom Brady twice -- the first multi-sack game of his injury-plagued career. Now Houston wants to see him do it again. "He's a confident player," O'Brien said. " ... When he feels good and he's healthy, he's a good football player."
GROUNDED: For four seasons, Pagano has talked incessantly about the need to run. The Colts might need a ground game more than ever. Over the last four weeks, Indy has rushed for 62.5 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Improving those numbers would help keep the quarterbacks upright.
LOPSIDED RIVALRY: Houston has a problem in Indy. It can't win. The Texans couldn't win in December 2011 when their playoff-bound team lost to a one-win Colts' team that had Dan Orlovsky at quarterback. They couldn't win in December 2012 when they were facing a rookie quarterback with a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed. And if they want to make the playoffs this year, they need to end this 0-13 run