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 tonight when the new champion, Houston, meets the old one.
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 Indianapolis 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.
Indianapolis, in contrast, is a team in transition.
While Sunday’s victory over Tennessee finally allowed the Colts (1-13) to end comparisons with the NFL’s only 0-16 team, the 2008 Detroit Lions, bigger questions loom.
Wayne, Saturday and Mathis all have expiring contracts and Manning’s health is still in doubt following the most invasive of his three neck surgeries.
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 Indianapolis will have the No. 1 overall draft pick, a slot expected to be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
So tonight could be the final home game for Manning, Wayne, Saturday and Mathis.