Was anyone really surprised that Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, back on the sideline for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia more than three months ago, would have his starters out there battling against rival Houston? Despite Indianapolis’ playoff seeding set in stone prior to kickoff, it played the role of spoiler, sending the Texans, who could have locked up the AFC’s top seed with a win, back to Houston reeling after a demoralizing loss, suddenly forced to prepare for the Bengals on a short week.
What we learned: Even a date with the Colts’ defense couldn’t fix what ails Houston’s anemic offense. Matt Schaub’s recent struggles continued, as he tossed a pair of interceptions — one an underthrow to James Casey that should have been a touchdown — and the Texans managed only one offensive TD for the third consecutive week. Big plays again hurt the defense; Colts rookie WR T.Y. Hilton got behind the defense and into the endzone on a 70-yard seam buster and his touchdown was a dagger, two weeks after he torched Houston on a 61-yard catch-and-run score. Gary Kubiak’s group also was penalized nine times for 64 yards, and poor lane assignments on the kick coverage team resulted in Colts RS Deji Karim galloping, untouched, 101 yards for a score, 12 seconds after Houston’s only lead of the day.
What’s in store next: After losing 3-of-4 to end the season and squandering a first-round bye, the Texans play host to the Bengals in the wild-card round for the second year in a row. Houston handled Cincinnati with ease last January, but this is a different Bengals squad. Unlike Houston, they’re on a roll heading into the playoffs, and their defense is capable of making life miserable for Schaub and Co. For the Texans, it all starts with containing DT Geno Atkins, the most disruptive interior defender in the NFL not named J.J. Watt. More than anything, the Texans need to get a grip, quickly; their early-season swagger, when they just knew they were the better team the moment they got off the bus, is a distant memory.
What the heck? It is almost as though this is a different Gary Kubiak than the one who coached the first three-quarters of the season. The penalties — particularly on special teams, an issue Houston had to think it had figured out by now — are completely inexcusable at this point of the season, in a win-or-say-goodbye-to-your-bye-game, especially. Much like his offense, Kubiak’s play-calling is best when everything is in rhythm. That is the best way we can describe Houston’s offensive woes of late: lacking any sort of sustainable rhythm. It’s so difficult to turn it back on once the switch has been flipped, for whatever reason. The Texans have found that out the hard way.
What we learned: This was a really special one. Chuck Pagano’s return. His team growing up and putting its foot on the throat of a good, albeit struggling, team. Andrew Luck making good decisions. As we’ve grown accustomed to, making a few absolutely gorgeous throws, none better than the 70-yard TD strike to T.Y. Hilton in the fourth quarter. If it was, in fact, Dwight Freeney’s curtain call in Indianapolis, he treated us all to a great show. His numbers won’t show it, but he was as consistently disruptive as we have seen in some time. The Colts had an absolutely perfectly blocked 101-yard kickoff return by Deji Karim, 12 seconds after Houston built its sole lead of the day.
What’s in store next: Another really special moment awaits Pagano, as he returns to face his old team, the Ravens, losers of four of their last five, including a meaningless Week 17 game against the Bengals in which Baltimore rested several key starters. In addition to Pagano’s familiarity with the Ravens, the Colts meet old friend (well, maybe acquaintance) Jim Caldwell, Baltimore’s interim offensive coordinator. Given the Ravens’ uneven offensive play and barrage of injuries on defense — paired with Indianapolis’ growing confidence — this has to feel like a very winnable game for the Colts. Of course, we know the struggles this young team has had going on the road — and Baltimore is a talented, playoff-tested group that is extremely tough to beat at home.
What the heck? Speaking of brimming with confidence, Colts RCB Vontae Davis, who picked off Matt Schaub twice Sunday, chose the perfect time to play his best football. On the heels of a one-pick performance in Kansas City (he was robbed of a second interception because of a pass interference penalty), Davis came up with a pair of tremendous picks, one on a Schaub underthrow over the middle and one in the corner of the endzone in front of Andre Johnson. GM Ryan Grigson’s trade for Davis right before the season looked like one of his few questionable moves at its outset, with Davis struggling through injuries and not playing very well, but he has come on like gangbusters, giving a Colts defense desperate for playmakers a very dangerous one on the back end.
What we learned: The Titans’ defense didn’t come up with enough impact plays this season, but it — and the special-teams units — showed a definite ability to turn games in their favor against Jacksonville. Rookie WLB Zach Brown, a rare bright spot in Nashville much of the season, had a pair of pick-sixes and a sack. RS Darrius Reynaud, reenacting his early-season magic, took punts 69 and 81 yards to the house. Brown and Reynaud became the first teammates to each have two return TDs in the same game in NFL history — and all four TDs occurred within a five-minute span, sandwiched by halftime. Unfortunately, the Titans needed every bit of the help they received from defense and special teams, as QB Jake Locker and the offense again never got out of the gate (221 total yards, 12 first downs).
What’s in store next: Head coach Mike Munchak’s sixth win apparently was enough to save his job. Owner Bud Adams announced on Monday the Titans will keep Munchak, though the owner has not hidden his dissatisfaction for the way the Titans were embarrassed on multiple occasions in the 2012 season. Even with Munchak back, the Titans’ biggest questions remain the same: Is QB Jake Locker, who will undergo surgery on his non-throwing shoulder this offseason, the guy? How do they create a better, more consistent pass rush? Will Tennessee stray from its typical philosophy and invest a few high-round picks to upgrade the interior of the offensive line?
What the heck? CBs Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner played pretty well this season (the latter better than the former), particularly when considering the lack of pressure up front they had to overcome. Yet, when the Titans came out of the tunnel for the second half in Week 17, it was second-year player Tommie Campbell starting ahead of Verner. Remember, Campbell appeared poised to be the Titans’ third corner before the season, but he quickly fell out of favor and was replaced by Ryan Mouton. Once Mouton proved he wasn't the answer, the Titans turned to rookie Coty Sensabaugh, who took his lumps. It would appear Campbell’s opportunity in this game was part of an effort to find out what the Titans have beyond their starters. Campbell remains a very tantalizing prospect because of his great speed and athleticism, but we will have to wait and see if the light bulb will ever go on.
What we learned: The Jaguars' final game with GM Gene Smith, who was fired Monday, in control came to a fitting close: with Jacksonville having issues protecting its QB, who provided more questions than answers about the stability of the position over the long haul. QB Chad Henne, in his final audition for 2013, tossed two pick-sixes. The Jaguars’ defense, despite playing OK, did not create consistent pressure against Titans QB Jake Locker. In summary, what we learned about the Jaguars is what we have known all season: this roster — even at full strength — does not have the necessary talent to compete on a consistent basis.
What’s in store next: A decision on head coach Mike Mularkey will likely wait until after a new GM is hired. It doesn’t look good for Mularkey, though. It is extremely rare that a GM comes in without bringing in his own guy. There will be plenty of other offseason intrigue, too: What does owner Shad Khan decide with regards to Jets disgruntled QB Tim Tebow? Is Maurice Jones-Drew, who had foot surgery last week, going to be a good soldier this offseason? Can he come back healthy in the final year of his deal and still be one of the league’s best running backs? Oh, yeah; there is, of course, the little issue of what direction the Jaguars will go with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
What the heck? If a complete overhaul is forthcoming, it sure would be nice for the new regime to believe it has a few diamonds in the rough. One such player could be rookie CB Mike Harris, whose confidence grew with each passing week as corners were getting injured and beind demoted around him. A 2012 fifth-round pick out of Florida State, Harris scored a TD on a punt block against the Titans, and he ended the season with five consecutive starts. With Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox both set to become free agents, did Harris show enough to figure into the team’s plans moving forward? We suspect the new GM will like what he sees when he turns on the tape of an aggressive, ball-hawking corner like Harris.