Eleven weeks into what has been a compelling 2019 regular season, plenty of things have been more or less resolved. For example, the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills are likely going to make the playoffs (99.9% and 70.4%, respectively) out of the AFC East and the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks can claim the same thing out of the NFC West (95.3% and 87.9%), while the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings should play in January out of the NFC North (91.4% and 87.2%). The New Orleans Saints have all but clinched the NFC South (98.4%), while the Cincinnati Bengals have actually been mathematically eliminated.
This article, though, is about the league’s closest race, which is between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. After simulating the remainder of the season using the machine learning capabilities of AWS, the race is a dead heat, with Houston repeating as division champs in 46.7% of our simulations, and the Colts—who are currently in first place—getting the title 46.4% of the time. Houston (66.4%) actually has a much better chance of making the playoffs than Indianapolis (57.4%), since Indy’s path to the playoffs is pretty straightforward after losses to Pittsburgh and Oakland: win the AFC South via a tiebreaker with Houston. While there are other tiebreakers to be had, the easiest one to capture is a season sweep, which they can achieve Thursday night in Houston.
Our model gives the Texans a 65% chance to win at home on Thursday night and avenge a 30-23 loss from earlier this season in Indianapolis. Let’s start with the more likely outcome, though: a Texans victory. Should Deshaun Watson & Co. win, they will have a 71% chance to win the division while the Colts will fall to just 22% to win the AFC South and only 36% to make it to the tournament.
Homefield advantage aside, this game centers on the difference between the coaching and quarterback play from both sides. Watson had his worst game of the season last week in Baltimore (though he played equally poorly in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers using raw PFF grade per snap), though he certainly was not aided by an apparent defensive pass interference on a 4th-and-2 that would have put the ball on the Ravens' goal line and could have kept the game close instead of giving the Ravens the ball and the chance to play from out in front. Watson had a 0.0 passer rating under pressure against the Ravens, which is likely to regress back upward, while his season-high sack rate (16% of dropbacks) should head downward.
On the other side, Frank Reich is the guy that makes the wheels turn in Indy, and he has turned Jacoby Brissett into a viable NFL quarterback. The Colts are running play-action on 34% of their passing plays, which ranks second to only the Kansas City Chiefs and their decent offense. That is 13% above where Brissett was in his first stint as a starter, and it’s no coincidence that he’s taking sacks half as often and is averaging more yards per attempt. For the Colts to pull off the upset, they will need a stellar gameplan from one of the best coaches in the NFL. Should they do so, they will have a 76% chance to take the division while the Texans will fall to just 18% with a second loss to the Colts.
Both teams entered this season with drastically different expectations and are now in a tightly contested battle that will go a long way to being decided on Thursday night.