Ehlinger gets start as Colts, Texans vie for draft position
By MICHAEL MAROT
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Sam Ehlinger's wild, season-long ride will include one last twist Sunday.
He's back as the Indianapolis Colts' starting quarterback, this time against one of his home-state teams - the Houston Texans.
No, it's not the way Ehlinger or Indy envisioned closing this season, with an early January contest to sort out draft position. But the Colts' constantly spinning quarterback carrousel has become a routine part of daily life for Ehlinger.
"I started the year as the (No.) 3 (on the depth chart), went to the 2, then the 1, then the 2, then the 3, then the 2 and now the 1 again," he said. "That's quite a roller-coaster, literally. I've just tried to stay consistent through my routine."
Ehlinger's seven-step depth-chart dance explains why the Colts (4-10-1) are in this spot.
Their two most veteran quarterbacks, Matt Ryan (shoulder) and Nick Foles (ribs), are injured. So interim coach Jeff Saturday handed the reins back to Ehlinger, who will make his third career start in a game where the loser could turn out to be the biggest winner.
If Indy can't stop its six-game losing streak, it will lock up a top-five pick and perhaps, finally, find the long-term franchise quarterback they've been searching for since Andrew Luck retired.
Houston (2-13-1), meanwhile, was playing better until last week's 31-3 rout against Jacksonville. Another loss Sunday would assure the Texans of claiming the No. 1 overall draft pick for the fourth time since the franchise entered the league in 2002.
But nobody, of course, wants to describe the stakes quite that way.
"I've been asked this question a few weeks because we've been in that role," first-year coach Lovie Smith said when asked about losing to help in the draft. "I understand it. We've been trying to win for a long period of time, every game. None of that has changed."
Certainly not for Ehlinger, who lost his first two starts while completing 61.5% of his passes, throwing one interception and being sacked 11 times. He was more efficient last week in relief of Foles, going 9 of 14 with 60 yards and throwing his first career touchdown pass.
What would he like for an encore? Collecting his first career win.
"I have experience with it in college - you win your bowl game, and you feel a lot better in the offseason," Ehlinger said. "It builds a little bit of momentum going into the offseason. Being able to cap off the year with a win kind of adds a little positive psychology to it."
While Colts owner Jim Irsay will begin his coaching search this week, the Texans must first decide whether to keep Smith or try their third coach in three seasons.
Last year, Houston fired David Culley after just one season and Smith could meet the same fate, though he insists he's not worrying about his future after one of his most difficult seasons.
"We haven't won a lot of games," Smith said. "Whenever you don't win a lot of games, it's tough. It takes an emotional toll on everyone. By saying that, though, how the guys have performed lately has given you (hope) - you can see what the future looks like."
Colts rookie Rodney Thomas II spent most of Tuesday in Cincinnati visiting Bills safety Damar Hamlin in the hospital.
The two were teammates at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh and Thomas said he speaks with Hamlin almost daily - including Monday, before Hamlin collapsed and was resuscitated on the field during the Bills game in Cincinnati.
Earlier this season, Thomas credited Hamlin with helping him make the NFL, and Thomas said he has no hesitation about playing this week - or what he's playing for.
"I'm putting it right where it has to be, right in my mind - playing for him, playing for what he represents," Thomas said. "If you look at who he is, he's a great person. I went to high school with him. He took me under his wing. I'm playing for him. I'm doing all of this stuff for him."
Quarterback Davis Mills struggled again in last week's loss, failing to get Houston into the end zone for the second time this season. He also lost a fumble that was returned for a score.
It has been a tough second season for the former Stanford star, who was benched for two games before regaining the job. Davis' 13 interceptions are tied for the league's second-highest total and could prompt the Texans to draft a new starter in April, though he's eager to make one last impression this season.
"Excited to have another opportunity to go out to Indy and try to find a way to win the last game of the season," he said.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston also contributed to this report.
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Updated January 5, 2023