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AFC South Spin cycle: Week Three

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Posted Sept. 24, 2012 @ 1:25 p.m. ET
By Arthur Arkush

Week Three brought us three heart-pounding finishes in the AFC South. An instant classic in Nashville between the Titans and Lions saw Tennessee overcome a 14-point Detroit comeback in the final 18 seconds to earn its first victory, via a 44-41 thriller in overtime. The Texans, after dominating Peyton Manning and the Broncos most of the afternoon, hung on for a 31-25 win, becoming the only remaining undefeated team in the AFC and improved their mark to 3-0 for the first time in franchise history. And, the Jaguars erased a 14-3 halftime deficit to the Colts to earn their first victory of the season, 22-17, thanks to an 80-yard scoring strike from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts in the final minute of play.

TEXANS

What we learned: The Texans can do more than just pound the rock and play strong “D.” QB Matt Schaub tied a career high with four TD passes, spreading the scoring wealth to four different receivers. It was an incredibly gutsy effort from Schaub, who, in the third quarter, was on the receiving end of late hits on consecutive plays, including a savage helmet-to-helmet blow from Broncos LB Joe Mays. The hit knocked Schaub’s helmet off, bloodying his left ear, but he was replaced by backup T.J. Yates for only one play. Amid Houston’s best passing day of the young season, we began to see contributions from newcomers Keshawn Martin (two receptions, 20 yards and one rush for 21 yards), Lester Jean (46-yard reception which led to an Owen Daniels TD) and Garrett Graham (two receptions, 39 yards).

What’s in store next: The Texans return home to host the Titans, who are coming off an emotional 44-41 overtime victory over the Lions. It is the first time Wade Phillips’ “D” will see Titans athletic signalcaller Jake Locker, who was superb on Sunday and poses an entirely different challenge than Manning. The Texans have improved on special teams since allowing Dolphins RS Marcus Thigpen to return a punt 72 yards to the house in Week One, but we expect extra attention to be paid on kick coverage units this week after Tennessee returned both a kickoff and punt for TDs against Detroit.

What the heck? The Texans are off to a perfect start, but they should have put the Broncos away a lot earlier. Three times on Sunday, Houston gave Denver a fresh set of downs because of penalties. And while Manning didn’t throw an interception, he did make three of four terrible throws that should have been picked easily. Ben Tate’s fumble with a little more than 10 minutes remaining and his team leading by 20 allowed the Broncos to get back in the game and make it interesting. Head coach Gary Kubiak undoubtedly will let his club know that it was playing with fire with all of the careless mistakes, something it won’t be able to overcome every week.

JAGUARS

What we learned: WR Cecil Shorts has become Blaine Gabbert’s go-to receiver when the game is on the line. Two weeks after Gabbert found Shorts open down the right sideline for what should have been a game-winning TD against the Vikings, the second-year QB went back to his second-year receiver with 45 seconds remaining Sunday and the Jaguars down one point. Gabbert found Shorts on a quick slant, and Shorts did the rest, galloping 80 yards for the game-winning score. With top pick Justin Blackmon again ineffective and free-agent acquisition Laurent Robinson exiting early with a head injury, the Jaguars must find ways to get Shorts, who possesses the speed and quickness to threaten defenses vertically and horizontally, involved earlier in games. The TD catch was his lone target and reception on the day.

What’s in store next: The Jaguars host the Bengals, who needed a pair of fourth-quarter TDs from Andy Dalton to hang on and beat the Redskins. Cincinnati has struggled at EverBank Field over the years, but this is a different team with Dalton and wideout A.J. Green in the mix. In order to slow Dalton, who has thrown for three TDs and at least 300 passing yards in consecutive weeks, the Jaguars must make him uncomfortable in the pocket. That has not happened the past two weeks, when Jacksonville has failed to sack Andrew Luck and Matt Schaub, respectively. From an injury standpoint, the Jaguars will wait and see on Robinson (head) and Montell Owens (head).

What the heck? A pair of undrafted rookies, WR Kevin Elliott and LB Julian Stanford, both made contributions Sunday, with Elliott catching two passes and drawing a pair of pass-interference penalties on Colts CB Vontae Davis, and Stanford temporarily replacing Kyle Bosworth and chipping in with two tackles, including a tackle for loss. Both of these players only made it in the game because of injuries, but it was a positive sign that they were up to the task and able to make an impact. However, on the same drive that Elliott caught a 22-yarder down the seam and forced Davis to commit pass interference, he wasn’t ready for a fastball from Gabbert in the left corner of the endzone that could have resulted in six points and didn't make the catch.

TITANS

What we learned: It’s not a recipe the Titans are likely to duplicate, but for a club struggling to establish an identity, leaning on explosive plays in all three phases of the game was the right formula – this week at least – to get Tennessee a much-needed appearance in the win column over a tough opponent. RS Darius Reynaud threw a lateral pass to Tommie Campbell in the first quarter, reenacting the Music City Miracle for a 65-yard punt-return TD, before taking care of business on his own (huge decleating assist from rookie TE Taylor Thompson) with a 105-yard kickoff-return TD late in the fourth quarter. CB Alterraun Verner chipped in with a 72-yard fumble return for a TD when he wrestled the ball away from Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew.

What’s in store next: The Titans will enjoy this one, but a serious challenge lies ahead in Week Four: a trip to Reliant Stadium to battle the defending AFC South-champion Texans, who are the last remaining undefeated squad in the conference. Chris Johnson’s woes are likely to continue against Houston’s formidable run defense, thus the Titans will need another sterling performance from QB Jake Locker to have a chance. The Texans drubbed the Titans 41-7 in the only meaningful meeting a season ago, so this will be a good measuring stick to see what, if any, progress the Titans have made since then.

What the heck?: The Titans certainly received a big break when Lions head coach Jim Schwartz inexplicably went for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime, but they deserve credit for stopping backup QB Shaun Hill in his tracks to preserve their first victory. Clogging the middle was second-year DT Jurrell Casey, who had a big afternoon (seven tackles). … Rookie TE Taylor Thompson was a standout in camp, but his opportunities have been limited because of the Titans’ strong TE depth. However, Thompson got free downfield in Week Two, only to have QB Jake Locker badly overthrow him.

COLTS

What we learned: RB Maurice Jones-Drew continues to be a thorn in the side of the Colts, new era or not. Mojo, running behind an offensive line that was missing two starters, had plenty of room to run and appeared to wear down the Colts’ defense, which surrendered 19 points in the final 30 minutes against a Jacksonville offense that was historically bad one week earlier. This was an opportunity for the Colts to exploit Jacksonville up front, and they not only fell short in run defense but they failed to generate any type of consistent pressure against Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert. Outside of Robert Mathis, who recorded his fourth sack in three games, the Colts were held without a sack.

What’s in store next: The Colts have a bye in Week Four, giving them a chance to get healthy. The pass rush desperately misses OLB Dwight Freeney (ankle) and the offensive line would benefit from getting OLG Joe Reitz back. The club will wait and see on WR Austin Collie, who, in his first appearance in 2012, exited quickly with a knee injury. CBs Vontae Davis and Justin King, neither of whom has played particularly well, both exited the game with injuries. The Colts’ secondary will have to be at full strength in Week Five, when the high-octane Packers roll into Lucas Oil Stadium.

What the heck?: PK Adam Vinatieri is pretty much automatic in the fourth quarter, but he missed wide left on a 36-yarder with his team trailing by two points and 4:15 remaining. However, a delay-of-game penalty was called one play earlier, moving Vinatieri and the Colts back five yards. This was not Indianapolis’ only special-teams mishap. A 32-yard punt return by rookie T.Y. Hilton late in the first quarter was negated by an illegal block in the back by LB Moises Fokou. The Colts went three and out on the ensuing drive. On the afternoon, the Colts were penalized 11 times for 106 yards.

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