AFC South Spin cycle: Texans thrashed, Colts come back again

Posted Dec. 10, 2012 @ 2:33 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

Updated Monday, Dec. 11 at 1:30 p.m. ET

The Texans were torched by the Patriots Monday night, making this Sunday's matchup with the Colts all the more interesting. Indy engineered another fourth-quarter comeback, overcoming a sluggish performance on offense and some terrible officiating to earn their ninth victory, 27-23, over the Titans. Titans QB Jake Locker shot his team in the foot with some terrible second-half decisions. Meanwhile, the Jaguars missed WR Cecil Shorts and any semblance of a run defense in their 11th loss of the season, 17-10 to the Jets.

TEXANS

What we learned: In their fourth and final regular-season prime-time game, the Texans again proved that they aren’t ready to play with top-flight competition on the NFL’s biggest weekly stage. From an illegal formation penalty on the first play from scrimmage, Houston’s players and coaches repeatedly failed to execute even the simplest assignments. The right side of the offensive line was no match for the brilliant play of DT Vince Wilfork. QB Matt Schaub played poorly from the outset, while his counterpart, Tom Brady, torched the Texans’ defense, consistently exploiting mismatches — or in some cases, complete failures to cover his receivers. Gary Kubiak was badly outcoached by Bill Belichick, not making proper adjustments and throwing in the towel by huddling, down four TDs, in the fourth quarter.

What’s in store next: Houston returns to Reliant Stadium to host the red-hot Colts in a game that suddenly has all kinds of divisional importance. With two head-to-head meetings in the final three weeks, both Houston and Indianapolis control their own destiny for a divisional crown. The Colts have dominated the all-time series, 17-3, but neither club obviously even resembles the ones that contributed to that lopsided record. For the Texans, it starts with finding answers in pass defense. A win over the Titans in Week 13 notwithstanding, Houston has allowed an average of 360 passing yards per week and 10 passing TDs over the past month. Andrew Luck’s Colts definitely have the ability to throw it around the yard, thus defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a master of creating confusion for rookie QBs, needs to draw up another gem against Luck, one of the more advanced rookie QBs the league has ever seen.

What the heck? On Schaub’s lone interception — though he was lucky not to have two others picked off in the second half — he tried to force the ball to Kevin Walter down the seam. But Patriots DB Devin McCourty’s great range allowed him to come over from the backside of the play and dart in front of Walter for the interception right in front of the New England’s goal line. Schaub should have never made the throw — particularly when considering his checkdown, RB Arian Foster, didn’t have any defenders within 10 yards of him in the middle of the field. It was just one of Houston’s countless glaring mistakes in a game in which it had to be perfect to have a fighting chance.

COLTS

What we learned: This team’s great resolve shows no signs of letting up at this point. QB Andrew Luck was off from the outset — and his receivers had their fair share of drops; the referees blatantly missed Luck’s knee being down on a first-half pick-six that should have been called back (as well as a pair of questionable calls — defensive holding on Moises Fokou and pass interference on Antoine Bethea — on a Tennessee scoring drive that spanned 10:08 from the third to the fourth quarters); the Colts were down two running backs and two offensive linemen by the second half. Yet, the defense rose up in the final 30 minutes, limiting the Titans to 86 total yards and six first downs while creating two critical takeaways, and the offense picked up 86 of its 98 rushing yards in the final 30 minutes to pull off another fourth-quarter comeback.

What’s in store next: All season, pundits have put a ceiling on the Colts — and the Colts keep pushing that ceiling higher and higher. Everyone just assumes Indianapolis will be the AFC’s fifth seed — and that likely will wind up being the case. But don’t tell that to the Colts, who have their sights set on a division crown, with the first of two meetings against the division-leading Texans in Houston on Sunday. This will be a wonderful measuring stick for the young Colts, heading into what is sure to be a playoff atmosphere at Reliant Stadium.

What the heck? Putting on film of Colts CB Cassius Vaughn from this season wouldn’t be the best way to teach a young kid how to play the cornerback position. Vaughn’s technique leaves a lot to be desired and he has been burned plenty this season. Yet, Sunday, he was the best defensive player on the field for the Colts, tying for a game-high eight tackles, in addition to three passes defensed and a pick-six, gift-wrapped by Titans QB Jake Locker with Tennessee in the shadow of its own goal line with a six-point lead. Vaughn was outstanding all day, sticky in coverage and fearless in run support. Talk about GM Ryan Grigson’s rookie class all you want; it’s deserved. But with guys like Jerrell Freeman and Vaughn making huge contributions on defense, Grigson also has shown a propensity for turning one team’s trash into Colts treasure.

TITANS

What we learned: For as dazzling as QB Jake Locker played in the first half, completing 15-of-20 passes for 213 yards and a score — plus an electric 32-yard scramble — his play in the final 30 minutes simply won’t cut it. The interception he threw to Colts CB Cassius Vaughn was an inexplicably bad decision. Tennessee’s primary objective with the season already dead is developing Locker and heading into the offseason with as much confidence in their plan under center as possible. Halves like this one set that plan back, unfortunately. Defensively, the Titans played well enough to win; this was about the one player on the field who can’t afford to make mistakes making too many when his team was well positioned to pull off an upset.

What’s in store next? Potentially the least sexy “Monday Nighter” of the year, with the 4-9 Titans hosting the 6-7 Jets, whose consecutive victories over the Cardinals and Jaguars, respectively, were perhaps best described by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King: “there's a chance it's the ugliest two-game winning streak in their history.” Gang Green grounded and pounded its way to a 17-10 victory over the Jaguars Sunday, with RBs Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell combining for 155 rushing yards and a pair of scores on 39 carries. Mark Sanchez returned to the starting lineup, but the Jets won in spite of their bumbling QB, who committed his 19th turnover of the season.

What the heck? The most encouraging development from another disappointing loss for the Titans was undoubtedly the best performance of the season by WR Kenny Britt, who hauled in eight catches for 143 yards, looking much more explosive in and out of his breaks and a lot more physical and dynamic with the ball in his hands after the catch. Tennessee has been waiting on Britt, who logged his first 100-yard receiving game since Week Two of the 2011 season, to finally be healthy after multiple offseason knee surgeries. It looks like Britt is finally back. What’s more, the player drafted in the first round one year later, DLE Derrick Morgan, had one of his more disruptive games as a pro, compiling a sack, tackle for loss and four QB hits. The Titans surely would feel better about this trainwreck of a campaign if they can head into the offseason thinking these underachievers have finally turned a corner.

JAGUARS

What we learned: Cecil Shorts is probably the most indispensable member of the Jaguars’ offense not named Maurice Jones-Drew. With Shorts inactive (concussion), QB Chad Henne played very poorly, more closely resembling the man he replaced, Blaine Gabbert, than the guy who gave the Jacksonville offense such a huge spark in November. In his first career start at running back, Montell Owens showed real toughness, but he is what he is: the Jaguars’ fourth option at RB. Defensively, the Jaguars were again gashed on the ground, magnifying the monster disappointment the defense, and particularly the defensive line, has been all season long. DE Jason Babin made his first big play as a Jaguar, a strip-sack of Mark Sanchez in the first half, but he contributed to Jacksonville’s inept defensive performance against the run.

What’s in store next? Henne returns to Miami to battle his former team, the Dolphins, who drafted him in the second round in 2008. The Fins are coming off a hard-fought 27-13 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco, in which QB Ryan Tannehill completed 17-of-33 passes for 150 yards and a score. Jacksonville better be ready to slow down DRE Cameron Wake, who notched three more sacks Sunday to tie his career high (14). Wake against Jaguars athletic OLT Eugene Monroe should be a fun battle to watch, as Monroe has the quick feet to match Wake’s incredible burst off the edge. With Jones-Drew unlikely to return, the Jaguars again could call on Owens (14-91-1 against New York) to lead the ground attack.

What the heck? Undrafted rookie WR Kevin Elliott looks the part at 6-3, 215 pounds with good athleticism. Elliott made the team out of camp because all he did was make plays in the offseason. Well, all he has done during the season is make mistakes, unfortunately. After head coach Mike Mularkey singled out Elliott last week by saying that he has to cut down on mental errors, Elliott had several drops and didn’t appear to be on the same page on Henne’s decisive interception on the final drive. Guys like Elliott have to work so hard to even get a chance in this league, and they must capitalize in the rare times they are called upon. Suffice to say, Elliott will remember his first NFL start — for all the wrong reasons.