AFC South Spin cycle: Colts' turnaround complete

Posted Dec. 24, 2012 @ 2:32 a.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

The Colts became just the second team in NFL history to win 10 games after losing 14 the previous season, punching their ticket to the playoffs with a 20-13 win in Kansas City. The Texans continued to raise doubts regarding their postseason potential, getting whipped in all three phases by the Vikings. The Jaguars gave the Patriots all they could handle before eventually succumbing, while the Titans failed to show up in Green Bay.

TEXANS

What we learned: The Texans are trending in the wrong direction at the worst possible time. They were thoroughly beaten in all three phases by the Vikings, though the continued struggles of the offense (187 total yards, 1-of-11 on third down) are of the utmost concern. Moreover, their offensive catalyst, RB Arian Foster, left the game in the third quarter with an irregular heartbeat and didn’t return. It’s all still in front of the Texans — a win at Indianapolis next week locks up the AFC’s No. 1 seed — but their dominant start to the season, grinding out 11 wins in their first 12 games, is nothing more than a distant memory, as they have now been handled with ease two of the past three weeks.

What’s in store next: The Texans’ road to the No. 1 seed in the AFC takes them to Lucas Oil Stadium, where they have never won, on the final Sunday of the season. The Colts clinched a wild-card spot, though unconvincingly, with a 20-13 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday. Houston and Indianapolis met just two weeks ago, with the Texans capitalizing on myriad Colts’ mistakes for a 29-17 victory. Houston’s bread and butter is its running game, and after managing just 34 yards on 16 carries in Week 16 — and after the Colts became the first team in NFL history last week to win despite allowing over 350 rushing yards — it is imperative that an early tone is set on the ground.

What the heck? It is deeply troubling that the Texans’ three losses have all come in such pitiful fashion. Houston again failed to show up for the game against Minnesota — almost unbelievable considering everything that was at stake. Head coaches want their clubs putting their best foot forward at this time of the season, yet the Texans came out completely flat for the second time in three weeks. It begs the question: Does this team have what it takes to suddenly flip the switch back on when the stakes are the highest?

COLTS

What we learned: Regardless of how poorly Andrew Luck and the Colts play in the first three-plus quarters — Luck was as off as we have seen him this season and the Colts’ defense was a complete sieve all afternoon — if they keep it close, they will have a chance at the end. Luck was again masterful on the Colts’ record-tying seventh fourth-quarter game-winning drive of the season, connecting on 6-of-7, including the game-winner to Reggie Wayne with 4:08 remaining. Much like their head coach, Chuck Pagano, who is expected back on the sideline in Week 17 less than three months removed from being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts continue to defy the odds. This is a flawed team, but also a dangerous one, given it keeps finding ways to win games it has no business being in.

What’s in store next: The Colts host the Texans in the regular-season finale and, while it might be an opportunity to rest starters, we have a feeling the Colts will want to play spoiler, what with a win over Houston possibly preventing the AFC road to the Super Bowl going through Houston. The Colts played poorly in a Week 15 loss to the Texans, yet they were in the game late with a chance to pull off the upset. That should give an already confident club that much more as it prepares to put an exclamation point on a truly remarkable regular season.

What the heck? We said heading into this matchup, which pitted the NFL’s most giving offense against its least opportunistic defense, that something had to give. In the end, it was the Chiefs that did the giving, turning the ball over three times. It should have been four, though, as CB Vontae Davis was flagged for one of the worst pass interference calls imaginable with just over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Colts trying to preserve a three-point lead. On 3rd-and-3 at the Chiefs’ 46-yard line, Davis slid in front of WR Jamar Newsome, coming up with a nifty pick. However, the phantom PI flag awarded Kansas City 24 yards and a fresh set of downs. The Colts would get off the field, but only after surrendering the game-tying field goal. Fortunately, Luck and the Colts had the last laugh.

JAGUARS

What we learned: The Jaguars continue to display a lot of pride, as they hung around against a much, much better opponent, giving themselves a chance to tie it on the game’s final play. Unfortunately, for the Jaguars, Chad Henne tossed an interception in the endzone, sealing his team’s fate. At 2-13, moral victories don’t mean much, but the Jaguars should be proud of outgaining the mighty Patriots 436-349 and forcing Tom Brady into his second consecutive two-interception games. However, the Jaguars turned Brady’s picks into just six points, and leaving opportunities on the field against a club that good rarely turns out well.

What’s in store next: The Jaguars travel to Nashville for a battle of the embattled, with Mularkey and Titans head coach Mike Munchak potentially coaching for their jobs. Unlike the Jaguars, who showed great fight against a Super Bowl contender, the Titans barely showed up in a 55-7 rout by the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Jaguars earned one of two wins this season against the Titans in Week 12. It was Chad Henne’s first start under center for the Jaguars, and he completed 17-of-26 for 261 yards, two TDs and one INT. The difference in the game, however, was a Dwight Lowery interception of Jake Locker in Titans’ territory with under three minutes remaining.

What the heck? As we said above, Mularkey deserves credit for getting the most out of his players when there is little left to play for. However, he also deserves blame for AGAIN showing questionable game-management skills. In recent weeks, Mularkey had taken on the mentality of a riverboat gambler, often going for it on fourth down when field goals seemingly made as much or more sense. Why, then, does Mularkey go conservative when he knows his club needs touchdowns to beat the league’s most explosive offense? The best example of this came with the Jaguars facing a 4th-and-1 at their own 49-yard line early in the second quarter. Yes, Jacksonville led by a 10 points at the time, but did Mularkey really think 13 points would be enough to best New England when he sent  Bryan Anger out to punt? The Patriots proceeded to drive 52 yards on 11 plays to cut the lead to 13-6.

TITANS

What we learned: The Titans’ hugely disappointing season reached a new low, as they were absolutely humiliated by the Packers, 55-7. Jake Locker was dreadful, posting a 41.0 passer rating that would have been far worse had Tennessee not broken the shutout with a meaningless touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. After playing better in recent weeks, the Titans’ defense took a serious step back, allowing Aaron Rodgers to throw for three TDs and add a fourth with his legs. As poorly as Locker played, his protection and surrounding cast offered little help, as he was sacked seven times and RB Chris Johnson, who left the game briefly with an ankle injury, managed just 28 yards on 11 carries.

What’s in store next: The Titans’ nightmare season finally reaches its merciful conclusion with a home date against the Jaguars, who, amazingly, have been even less competitive than their division counterparts. Could Mike Munchak be coaching his final game with the Titans? It remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that another loss like this — especially against a club as bad as the Jaguars — won’t help his cause. The best-case scenario for the Titans is that Locker comes out and shreds Jacksonville’s woeful defense, providing at least a glimmer of hope heading into the offseason.

What the heck? Titans interim offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said after the game that the Titans remain firmly committed to Locker — and what else is he supposed to say? But his worst game of the season comes at a time when we’re supposed to see progress; instead he continues to look less comfortable and more erratic with each passing week. When the Titans signed Matt Hasselbeck to a three-year deal prior to the 2011 season, the hope was that his services would no longer be needed by 2013. Now, it looks like not only will they be needed, but despite approaching age 38 shortly after next season begins, he likely still gives the Titans a better chance to win than Locker, the supposed future of the organization.