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AFC South Spin cycle: Texans win statement game

Pro Football Weekly
AFC South Spin cycle: Texans win statement game
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AFC South Spin cycle: Texans win statement game

The Texans made a strong argument in Week 10 that they are the best team in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Titans responded to owner Bud Adams’ tirade, the Colts won their fourth straight game and the Jaguars fell for the eighth time in nine tries.

TEXANS

What we learned: Three weeks after getting demolished by the Packers on “Sunday Night Football,” the Texans proved that the rumors regarding their inability to produce under the bright lights were greatly exaggerated. Not only did they go into Soldier Field, underdogs for the first time this season, they beat Chicago at its own game: playing dominant defense and winning the turnover battle. On a wet track, with both offenses failing to find a rhythm, the Texans relied more on stuffing Matt Forté and playing great coverage on the back end than getting a lot of pressure up front. The result was effective: the Texans’ secondary generated all four of the club’s takeaways, putting the offense in position to ride its horse, Arian Foster, to a grind-it-out 13-6 victory.

What’s in store next: The Texans host the Jaguars, who are in the midst of a six-game nosedive. With the type of shutdown defense Houston is playing consistently, the only way it will likely fall to the Jaguars is by beating itself. Houston went into Chicago and pulled off the upset without two starters (TE Owen Daniels, NT Shaun Cody) and a third major contributor (RB Ben Tate), so their progress will be monitored closely throughout the week. Though this matchup is extremely tilted on paper, the Texans must be cognizant of avoiding a major letdown coming off such an emotional and taxing victory.

What the heck? Backup NT Earl Mitchell, making his first career start, played like a man on a mission to change that fact as quickly as possible. Mitchell was a dominant force against the run, having his way with an overmatched Chicago interior wall. While his numbers don’t jump off the page — four tackles — Mitchell was a central figure in stifling Chicago’s running attack, both tracking down the ball carrier on his own and clogging up the middle just enough to let his teammates fly to the football. Mitchell played 32 of Houston’s 59 defensive snaps, showing that the drop-off from starter Shaun Cody is not that significant.

COLTS

What we learned: The defensive takeaways were going to come eventually. That the Colts generated three of them on the road without three of their best defenders, against a team that is usually stingy with the football, is a testament to how well things are going for them right now. Andrew Luck is still making a few too many mistakes on the road, but the Colts were good enough to overcome an interception that he forced and a second poor decision that was negated because of a roughing-the-passer penalty. It’s time to stop saying how underrated Luck’s athleticism is, too; his five rushing TDs are a Colts QB record and the second-best total for a quarterback in the NFL — one behind Robert Griffin III.

What’s in store next: The Colts will have 10 days to get healthy before traveling to Foxborough to renew their rivalry with the Patriots. New England got all it could handle from Buffalo, improving to 11-0 against the Bills at Gillette Stadium despite surrendering 481 total yards. Indianapolis has played well defensively during its four-game winning streak, but it’s probably safe to say the Colts will have to be significantly better against the Patriots, whose QB, Tom Brady, has tossed 18 TDs vs. just three INTs, and will pick apart Indianapolis’ injury-decimated secondary if given the chance. Speaking of injuries, the Colts will have a much better chance of pulling off the upset if CBs Vontae Davis (ankle) and Jerraud Powers (toe) and OLB Robert Mathis (back) can return after the long layoff.

What the heck?: Thursday night was a perfect illustration of good teams catching breaks, while bad teams remain mired in tumult. On the Colts’ third drive, an eight-play, 66-yard march capped by Andew Luck’s five-yard scoring scamper, Indianapolis had an interception negated because of a roughing-the-passer penalty; the Colts picked up another first down on a fumbled snap, recovered by Colts RB Delone Carter, whose heady play resulted in a four-yard gain; Reggie Wayne also converted a first down on 2nd-and-8 when Jaguars backup S Chris Prosinski failed to touch Wayne down, before the All-Pro WR had the awareness to crawl an extra two yards for the first down. Heady plays? Sure. A bit of luck involved? Absolutely.

JAGUARS

What we learned: Head coach Mike Mularkey can only take so much. Typically very calm and collected, Mularkey blew his top midway through the second quarter, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing his headset and play sheet after the referees failed to review an Andrew Luck TD run. It was the start of the Jaguars’ unraveling, and likely a culmination of two months of frustrations coming to a head. On the field, Jacksonville continues to lack a vertical dimension on offense, and enough difference makers on defense. Penalties were a major problem for the Jaguars once again. This team continues to look absolutely clueless at EverBank Field (0-5, outscored 153-44).

What’s in store next: When it rains, it pours. On the heels of an embarrassing performance in front of a prime-time audience, the bumbling Jags must travel to Houston, where the 8-1 Texans await, flying high off their statement win over the Bears on “Sunday Night Football.” The Texans bested the Jaguars 27-7 in Week Two, behind a 216-yard rushing day. Suffice to say, the Jaguars are unlikely to turn things around with a similar defensive effort. The return of franchise RB Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) is desperately needed by the Jaguars, though the likelihood of him suiting up for this one is small.

What the heck? After letting his emotions boil over, Mularkey’s decision-making was clouded late in the first half, when he planned to forego a chip-shot field goal, instead going for it on 4th-and-4 at Indianapolis’ 17-yard line. The Jaguars were trailing 17-0 at the time, and taking the points and building some momentum before halftime was the obvious and correct decision. Mularkey was bailed out, as a false-start penalty by QB Blaine Gabbert led to the Jags taking the three points, but his thought process was no less befuddling.

TITANS

What we learned: With a lot of pride at stake, the Titans answered the bell, delivering by far their most complete performance of 2012 in a dominant 37-3 road victory over the Dolphins. Titans QB Jake Locker was rusty in his first action in over a month, but his athleticism gave the offense an unmistakable spark, using his legs to repeatedly burn Miami on third down and making some of his best throws of the day outside of the pocket. RB Chris Johnson was again superb, becoming the first back in 23 games to surpass the 100-yard mark against Miami. On defense, Tennessee’s linebacking corps was the feature attraction. All three starters — SLB Akeem Ayers, MLB Colin McCarthy and rookie weakside ‘backer Zach Brown — picked off Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans were a plus-four in the turnover battle.

What’s in store next: Tennessee enters the bye week on a rare high note. The goal for Mike Munchak and his team must be to try and bottle up whatever magic they found in South Beach and find a way to unleash it again when they travel to Jacksonville in Week 12. Houston, Indianapolis and Green Bay all still loom after that — with both the Colts and Packers on the road — thus the Titans still have several opportunities to measure how they stack up against teams they expected to be competing with for a postseason berth.

What the heck? Backup RB Jamie Harper had just two carries on the day, but one of those carries — a loss of five at the Miami 16-yard line early in the third quarter with the Titans looking to build on  a commanding 24-3 lead — nearly gave the Dolphins new life. Harper appeared to fumble, before landing on DE Jared Odrick. Instead, Harper was ruled down by contact, Locker and TE Jared Cook hooked up on a 26-yard scoring strike (after a false start) on the next play and the Titans, a team desperately in need of a break, seemed to catch one, effectively putting this game away. 

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