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AFC South Spin cycle: Thrilling comeback keeps Colts winning

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Recent posts by Arthur Arkush

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Posted Dec. 03, 2012 @ 3:43 p.m. ET
By Arthur Arkush

The incredible resolve that has defined the 2012 Colts was on full display Sunday, as Andrew Luck and Co. erased a 12-point deficit with under five minutes remaining, dispatching the Lions, 35-33, on a 14-yard scoring strike from Luck to Donnie Avery as time expired. Elsewhere in the division, the Texans punched their ticket to the postseason by punching out the Titans, and the Jaguars’ good vibes proved to be short-lived ones as they were handled in Buffalo.

TEXANS

What we learned: After being taken to the brink over the past three weeks, the Texans coasted in Nashville, storming out to a 21-3 halftime lead, before eventually prevailing, 24-10. Playing without four starters, including three on “D,” the Texans’ impressive depth showed well, with first-round OLB Whitney Mercilus and veteran Barrett Ruud combining for three sacks. Houston avoided a catastrophe after OLT Duane Brown temporarily exited with a left knee injury but returned shortly thereafter. However, nickel back Brice McCain, who has been great all season, and valuable backup TE Garrett Graham left the game and did not return with foot and head injuries, respectively.

What’s in store next: A potential sneak peek of the AFC championship game, with the Texans and Patriots set to do battle in Foxborough. New England clinched the AFC East on Sunday, knocking off the Dolphins 23-16 for its sixth consecutive victory, but it was far from a masterpiece. Tom Brady threw his first interception since the middle of October, and the offense generated just 321 total yards. With McCain’s injury status murky, the Texans will have serious concerns over who covers Wes Welker this week. With three of their top four corners now nicked up, there is a dire need to get Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) back.

What the heck? Welcome to the party, Lestar Jean. Houston’s second-year receiver started the scoring for the Texans, beating Titans FS Michael Griffin on 3rd-and-8 and racing for the 54-yard score on their first offensive series, his first TD on just his fourth catch of the season. Jean missed time earlier with a knee injury, and the Texans have gotten big contributions in the passing game from Andre Johnson and a slew of tight ends, but Jean is exactly the type of receiver head coach Gary Kubiak likes — tough and physical, with some vertical speed. Frankly, the Texans are always looking for greater wideout production outside of Johnson, making this a welcome sight.

COLTS

What we learned: Andrew Luck made some questionable decisions Sunday, as evidenced by his three interceptions — raising his total on the season to 16 — but he was masterful late in the fourth quarter in the two-minute offense, just as he has been all season. Luck now has five game-winning drives in his rookie season, just a ridiculous number. We continue to see that the Colts don’t have to be perfect — they surrendered 451 total yards and lost the turnover battle 3-1 — when Luck is on their side. Colts CB Cassius Vaughn drew the impossible assignment of slowing Calvin Johnson, who caught a career-high 13 catches for 171 yards and a score, but Vaughn came up with a critical touchdown-saving tackle of Lions RB Joique Bell early in the fourth quarter, forcing the Lions to settle for a field goal and allowing Indianapolis to erase what might have become an insurmountable deficit.

What’s in store next: A home meeting with the Titans, whom the Colts bested 19-13 in overtime in Week Eight. Indianapolis piled up 171 rushing yards in that game, and with Luck being asked to attempt 54 passes in Detroit, one should expect Vick Ballard and Donald Brown to get every opportunity to ease the burden on the passing offense in this one. Tennessee’s dreadful season continued last week, with the Texans clinching a playoff spot on the Titans’ field following a 24-10 victory. Jake Locker was picked off three times against the Texans, mustering a passer rating of 49.2.

What the heck? Hey, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz — what type of defense was that on the game-deciding final play? Detroit was in a very soft zone, keeping everything in front of the goal line. One problem: it completely failed to account for WR Donnie Avery, who, with no Lions defender within 10 yards of him, ran a shallow crossing route and was left wide open as Luck stepped up in the pocket and dumped off a pass, allowing Avery to beat Chris Houston in a footrace to the endzone. Said Schwartz after the game: “We did a poor job. We were protecting the endzone. … We let the quarterback escape. Those are things we can’t do in a two-minute and that’s why we were on the other side of that.” That’s a big reason why the Lions have been on the other side, also known as the losing side, eight times this season.

JAGUARS

What we learned: The Jaguars are still a bad football team. In fact, their record now indicates they are arguably the worst in the NFL. QB Chad Henne wasn’t as effective as the previous two weeks, completing just 18-of-41 for 208 yards, one TD and one interception. But this loss is on the “D,” first and foremost, after allowing the Bills to explode for 232 rushing yards. There were missed tackles. There was poor gap assignment. Overall, it was the same old story for the hapless Jaguars, following a short, two-week reprieve. Making matters worse, Jacksonville’s lone consistent offensive bright spot, Cecil Shorts, left the game in the fourth quarter after suffering a head injury. Starting RB Rashad Jennings also exited early with a concussion.

What’s in store next: The Jaguars return to EverBank Field to play another AFC East club, the Jets. Gang Green bested the Cardinals in a 7-6 barnburner in Week 13. Third-string QB Greg McElroy replaced struggling starter Mark Sanchez and promptly engineered New York’s one scoring drive of the day. However, they held Arizona to just 137 total yards of offense, thus it should be another good test for Mike Mularkey’s challenged offense. Could that group get a monster lift from the return of RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who hasn’t suited up since Week Seven? His status remains murky, though we hear the possibility shouldn’t be ruled out.

What the heck? As they have all season, silly penalties at the worst possible times cost the Jaguars dearly Sunday. An unnecessary-roughness penalty on ORT Cameron Bradfield early in the second quarter turned a 1st-and-goal at the 3 into a 1st-and-goal from the 18. Jacksonville would end up settling for a field goal, instead of potentially knotting the score at 7-7. The Jaguars would take a 10-7 on their next possession, but a 55-yard return on the ensuing kickoff by Marcus Easley was compounded by another unnecessary-roughness penalty, this time on Richard Murphy, who hit Easley after he already had been ushered out of bounds. These mental errors don’t reflect well on Mularkey, who can ill afford anything but his players' absolute best as he, his staff and his team are trying to prove to owner Shahid Khan they deserve a chance to right this ship in 2013.

TITANS

What we learned: The early returns on the offense getting a spark under interim coordinator Dowell Loggains are not encouraging. Tennessee was impressive on its opening drive, marching 59 yards on seven plays, immediately following Houston’s quick strike, yet the Titans were forced to settle for a 37-yard field goal. The confusion between receivers and quarterback that has plagued the Titans all season remained, as QB Jake Locker had a number of passes dropped late and was off his game from the outset. Defensively, the Titans weren’t terrible, but the Texans’ offense simply focused on preserving a big lead in the second half and didn’t show Tennessee too much. The Titans lost ORT David Stewart to a season-ending leg injury and OLG Steve Hutchinson to a knee injury, the severity of which is not yet known.

What’s in store next: The Titans travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts, who are coming off an emotional come-from-behind victory in Detroit. The Titans aren’t going to the postseason, but they should still be plenty fired up to try to upset their rivals, the likely playoff-bound Colts, not to mention the importance of the Titans finishing the season the right way in an attempt to save jobs. Locker was sacked six times by the Texans. The Colts were held without a sack in Detroit, but expect OLBs Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney to try to rudely welcome Locker to Indianapolis, particularly Mathis, who will go up against swing OT Mike Otto.

What the heck? Locker and Texans DT Antonio Smith had a confrontation after the game, in which Locker told Smith he didn’t appreciate Smith’s block on Titans C Fernando Velasco during Texans LB Darryl Sharpton’s interception return late in the fourth quarter. “The little, young whippersnapper tried to come and tell an old cat how to play football,” Smith said. … He faked like he was gonna dap me up. And like grabbed my hand and said, ‘I just want to tell you that was a (dirty) block.’ I just told him … are we playing football, or is this something else?” This was a forgettable day for Locker, but we like the fire and leadership he showed in standing up for a teammate on a play he thought was uncalled for.

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