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AFC South Spin cycle: Texans send message to rest of AFC

Pro Football Weekly
Striking similarities between Texans OLBs Reed, Mercilus

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Striking similarities between Texans OLBs Reed, Mercilus

The Texans sent an emphatic message to the rest of the AFC, thoroughly dominating the Ravens in a 43-13 pasting and making it clear that the road to New Orleans is most likely to travel through Houston. The Colts surpassed their 2011 win total, using an unorthodox (by Colts terms), yet welcomed formula — run the ball and stop the run — in beating the Browns. The Titans strung consecutive wins together for the first time this season, edging the Bills late in a shootout. Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s season of horrors continued, as its overtime loss to the Raiders was compounded by injuries to its two most important players.


What we learned: The Ravens, widely perceived to be the AFC’s second-best team behind the Texans, didn’t belong on the same field as Houston Sunday. The Texans’ defense came out angry, on the heels of being embarrassed by the Packers on a national stage, and took out its frustration on Ravens QB Joe Flacco, sacking him four times and hitting him countless others. J.J. Watt continued his dominant play, while Connor Barwin (sack for safety, four QB hits, batted ball) and Johnathan Joseph (pick-six) shook off poor starts to the season with tone-setting plays defensively that put this win on ice before halftime.

What’s in store next: The Texans head into the bye week with a great deal of confidence after a statement win. They can’t let their guard down, however, as a home game with the Bills is followed by another prime-time game, this one on the road against the Bears. The Texans will enjoy the down time, knowing they passed their first significant test from an adversity standpoint with flying colors.

What the heck? The Texans’ star power on “D” makes it easy to forget they added another very talented young player to the unit in the draft, first-round OLB Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus’ play on the field Sunday, a breakout performance in his first significant opportunity, will ensure we don’t forget about him again. Mercilus helped spearhead his team’s defensive dominance Sunday, registering both his first career sack and forced fumble one play before Houston broke into the scoring column on a Connor Barwin safety. Mercilus, seeing some action in place of Brooks Reed, continued his energetic effort, nearly sacking Joe Flacco a second time on the ensuing defensive series and, late in the second quarter, tipping a Flacco pass that led to a Glover Quin interception.


What we learned: The Colts are learning how to help out their rookie quarterback. Indianapolis gained a season-high 148 rushing yards, with rookie Vick Ballard and second-year player Delone Carter both looking sharp and purposeful with the ball. That allowed Andrew Luck, who also showed off his legs with a pair of TD runs, to drop back to pass a season-low 32 times, putting less strain on his arm and the rest of the body from being subjected to far less of a beating. Defensively, the Colts showed a great deal of pride by quickly bouncing back from the porous run defense against the Jets to stonewall the Browns (55 yards on 17 rushes) for their best defensive showing of the season.

What’s in store next: A trip to Nashville, where the Titans suddenly have built some momentum, following a 35-34 victory over the Bills, in which RB Chris Johnson had his best game of the season. The main focus for the Colts will be coming out with the same physicality on defense and not allowing Johnson a lot of yards after contact. The Colts are getting healthier — the return of ILB Pat Angerer was a great boon to the "D" — and potentially getting back NT Fili Moala, DLE Cory Redding and/or OLB Robert Mathis would only strengthen their ability to defend the run. The Colts should be able to move the ball on offense, and this will be an interesting test for the offensive line to protect Luck against a Titans defense that continues to provide very little in terms of a consistent pass rush.

What the heck? Interim head coach Bruce Arians got the win, making this discussion null and void, but he did use a questionable timeout with one second remaining before halftime and Cleveland facing 4th-and-4 at its own 44. Arians said after the game he wanted to force the Browns to punt to give his offense one more chance. Instead, even after the timeout, the Colts lined up with 12 men on the field on a Browns kneeldown play, giving the Browns a first down and a chance to attempt a Hail Mary pass that fell incomplete.


What we learned: The grass is most certainly not greener with backup Chad Henne leading the Jaguars. With QB Blaine Gabbert going down early with a left shoulder injury after a strong start, Henne was absolutely listless, mustering a ridiculous 54 total yards and two first downs in the final 30 minutes. In Henne’s defense, the weapons around him continued to be inadequate, with WR Justin Blackmon nowhere to be found and Henne running for his life in the pocket more often than not. This was a really bad football team with Gabbert and RB Maurice Jones-Drew; without them — Jones-Drew left with a foot injury in the first quarter and spent the second half on crutches — it could be one of the worst offenses in the history of the league.

What’s in store next:  If squandering a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and losing their two most important players wasn’t enough, the Jaguars now must go to Green Bay to battle a revitalized Packers offense. It is hard to envision a scenario where the Jags are able to match TDs with Aaron Rodgers and Co, thus this would seem to be a game in which Jacksonville’s defense showing up will represent the Jaguars' only chance of breaking out of their three-game slide. To his credit, coordinator Mel Tucker called a much more aggressive game Sunday, netting the Jaguars their first game with more than one sack since Week One, but the Jaguars will have to be exponentially better against the Pack.

What the heck? With starting CB Rashean Mathis benched in the second half for ineffective play, the Jaguars gave sixth-round CB Mike Harris his first extended action — and it appears they might have found something in the confident, feisty corner. Harris played extremely well given the circumstances, particularly late in the fourth quarter, when he was responsible for breaking up two long passes downfield with the Raiders trying to drive the ball downfield in search of their first lead. Mathis, still not fully recovered from offseason knee surgery, has been inconsistent this season, and free-agent acquisition Aaron Ross has been disappointing. At 1-5, the Jaguars would be wise to continue finding ways to get Harris on the field.


What we learned: The Titans showed great resolve for a second consecutive week. Trailing by six points with 2:57 remaining, Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck engineered another game-winning drive, marching the Titans 52 yards on seven plays in just 1:54, capped by a Nate Washington TD on 4th-and-9. Like last week, Hasselbeck was shaky, throwing a would-be interception that bounced off Bills S George Wilson’s chest, but he capitalized on Buffalo’s squandered opportunity. Tennessee’s defense didn’t get many stops — it allowed 382 total yards and 22 first downs — but it came through at the end when it appeared Hasselbeck might have left too much time for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills. Instead, Fitzpatrick went three-and-out, and the Titans scratched and clawed their way to a third victory.

What’s in store next: It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Titans should have their sights set on extending their winning streak to three games when they host a Colts squad that defined winning ugly against a bad Browns team Sunday. Just a few weeks ago, this matchup had the makings of a real snoozer, yet, suddenly, in the wide-open AFC, it has significant ramifications between a pair of three-win clubs. The biggest question for the Titans will be deciding if QB Jake Locker is ready to return from the left shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the first quarter of Week Four – and if he gives them the best chance to win with Hasselbeck, despite not showing his best, getting this team on a roll.

What the heck? The Titans’ offense showed a spark that has rarely been kindled thus far this season. Chris Johnson ran with much more authority, hitting holes faster on plays designed to get him north and south in a hurry; the offense opened the game in a sharp, no-huddle attack that caught Buffalo off guard; and the red-zone offense finally awoke after being in a season-long slumber. It was great to see so many adjustments from coordinator Chris Palmer, but it begs the question: What took until the last two weeks to put them into action?

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