Following are some whispers that we've been hearing from around the AFC:
• While it is hard to quantify what the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has meant to the Texans, who have lost two straight after reeling off a franchise-best seven wins, one source in Houston took a stab. "Cam [Newton] might have drove down the field (during the fourth quarter in Week 15) on them, but I don't think (Colts QB Dan) Orlovsky gets it done with Phillips on hand," he said. Phillips returned to practice this week following surgery on his kidney and gall bladder.
• Outside of rookie DT Karl Klug, the Titans have not had a consistent threat to rush the passer this season. DLE Derrick Morgan has begun to flash, but DRE Jason Jones, a converted tackle, has been a disappointment, we hear. "The move flat-out hasn't worked," said a daily team observer. A free agent after the season, Jones is unlikely to receive more than a one-year offer from the Titans.
• Colts vice chairman Bill Polian has said this season that he is happy with the team's depth at the safety position. With SS Melvin Bullitt having been lost for the season in Week One, first-year player David Caldwell has stepped into the starting lineup. "Caldwell has been up and down," said a daily team observer. "He can't catch a cold, though. He leads the team in passes defensed, but he has cost the Colts a few victories with those hands of stone."
• Say what you will about the job Polian has done this season, but you can't say that he hasn't taken his lumps publicly. Polian has shown a lot more humility than usual, admitting certain gaffes of his own making when constructing the roster.
• Patriots third-year ORT Sebastian Vollmer has had an injury-plagued season. He played in one game in the first seven weeks, then started Weeks Nine through 12 but has not played since. Earlier in the season, it was his back, but now a foot injury is keeping Vollmer out. Considering he has not been placed on injured reserve, we hear that the team still hopes he will return, maybe even late in the playoffs, provided the Patriots advance. A first-round bye gives Vollmer more time to rest. His return would help the running game, as it would allow the Patriots to use Nate Solder as a blocking tight end more often.
• Bills second-year DT Torell Troup played in 15 games as a rookie but could not stay healthy this season. He eventually went on injured reserve and had back surgery, but hopes are high for him next season. "He got off to a nice start in training camp, and I really thought he was going to make a giant leap in his sophomore season," Bills defensive line coach Giff Smith told PFW. "Unfortunately it didn't pan out that way because of injuries. I think his upside is tremendous. I think he's going to be the healthiest he has been since his sophomore or junior year of college."
• One of the new faces on the Dolphins' offensive coaching staff this season is Ike Hilliard. Three years removed from his final season playing, Hilliard coaches the wide receivers. "He's definitely a crutch that I lean on in that room," Dolphins WR Brian Hartline told PFW. "I like picking his brain and seeing what he has to offer. He's an intricate part to that wide receiver room. As far as coaching goes, he'll be a huge success in this league."
• To say that it's been a struggle for Ravens WR Lee Evans in his first season in Baltimore might be an understatement. He missed seven games with an ankle injury, and he's failed to make any real impact whatsoever in the passing game. To wit: Evans has just four catches — but he's been thrown to 25 times. Speaking to Baltimore reporters leading up to Week 17, QB Joe Flacco said he was working with Evans to strengthen their on-field connection. Said Flacco: "He's going to be someone that we need down the road in order to be successful."
• The Steelers' top three reserve quarterbacks — Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon — are free agents at season's end. It wouldn't be surprising in the least if Dixon, who showed promise earlier in his career, tested the market; the Steelers obviously have a long-term starting quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and Dixon has played behind Batch this season.
• Browns head coach Pat Shurmur had the following to say about the prospect of RB Peyton Hillis being back in 2012 — and whether this season would affect the Browns' decision making on the matter: "I think those are all conversations for the offseason. I've said it all the way back to the first part of the season, he's a very fine player that was dealing with injury this year, a couple of them. It was an illness early and then a hamstring in the middle. ... Now that he's healthy, we're seeing production."
• Considered a Pro Bowl candidate earlier in the season, Raiders OLT Jared Veldheer has seen his play tail off a bit down the stretch. He has committed 10 penalties on the season and been beaten by some talented pass rushers — especially Bears DE Julius Peppers — late in the year. Still, the team is high on his potential, and a team insider said he wouldn't be surprised if Veldheer is sent to Hawaii to end a season at some point in his career.
• Just three years after he was the last pick in the 2009 NFL draft, PK Ryan Succop was rewarded with a five-year, $14 million extension from the Chiefs. Succop has improved his consistency throughout his career, as evidenced by the 22 consecutive field goals he made this season, tying a team record. His range has also increased, as he has made 10-of-14 field goals from 40 yards or longer in 2011.
• The Chargers may be in the market for a new center. Nick Hardwick, who becomes a free agent following the season, is considering retirement, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. We hear that the team would be open to the 30-year-old returning in 2012, if he is interested in playing.
• Injuries in the Broncos' secondary have increased the playing time for David Bruton. The third-year safety has mainly contributed on punt coverage during the season. During Week 16 vs. the Bills, however, he played in place of the injured Brian Dawkins and posted a season-high five tackles, along with a tackle for loss and a pass defensed.