The AFC South is now a two-team race. And the Colts are not one of those teams.
It’s time to circle that Week 17 matchup between the Texans and Titans. Those two teams took care of business on Sunday—Houston held off Indianapolis 22–17 and Tennessee halted a late drive by Denver to win 13–10—and now they’re tied atop the AFC South at 7–6 with three weeks left in the regular season. The Colts sit at 6–7, but the team is essentially two back from the Texans because of a season-series sweep.
Houston was a bit fortunate to knock off Indianapolis the first time around, rallying from a 14-point deficit to late to stun the Colts in overtime back in Week 6. Sunday, the Texans earned their result, in full. They held the Colts to just three points in the first half and forced three turnovers, including a critical strip-sack of Andrew Luck by Jadeveon Clowney just as Indianapolis threatened to take a lead.
The Houston defense rose up again in the closing moments, too, breaking up an oddly called fourth-and-one screen pass on the Colts’ final possession.
A pretty win? Hardly. Nothing much about the AFC South as a division this season will be remembered for ages, but the Texans found enough from their defense and their run game (107 yards by Lamar Miller and 185 as a team) to save their own season. They carried a three-game losing streak into Sunday’s fork-in-the-road game, then found enough in the tank to respond.
So now they’ll turn their attention, in part, from Indianapolis to Tennessee. The Titans may have to run the table to take the division—Houston hosts Jacksonville and Cincinnati over the next two weeks and owns a 4–0 division record—but they at least gave themselves a shot with a solid effort Sunday.
It was a similar formula to Houston’s: run game, defense, hold on for dear life. In fact, QB Marcus Mariota was just six of 20 for 88 yards on the game, with one lone completion in the second half. But he, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry churned out 140 yards between them, and the defense made just enough plays to avert disaster.
Tennessee faces a very difficult trip to Kansas City next week, so it will need to be even better if it hopes to keep heat on the Texans.
Meanwhile, the Colts will spend the next three weeks praying for a miracle, but the more likely scenario is another off-season spent answering questions about their coach and GM. Both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson were handed contract extensions headed into this year, despite persistent rumors of a split throughout a trying 2015 season. The relatively recent contract commitments made by the organization could save both Pagano and Grigson, but it’s hard to argue that the status quo is working.
Even Sunday, the Colts were undone by several boneheaded mistakes, penalties and otherwise. The aforementioned Clowney strip-sack came when the Colts tried to block the Texans’ potent edge rusher one-on-one with TE Dwayne Allen. He, predictably, was beaten and Luck failed to recognize the inevitable danger coming off his blindside. The Colts’ last-gasp effort then died on, of all things, a fourth-and-short screen play—Vince Wilfork and D.J. Reader hurried Luck, who threw incomplete.
Coaching? Execution? Injuries? All of the above continue to work against the Colts, and at some point it will become impossible exonerate those in charge.
Make no mistake, this entire season now threatens to go down as a massive missed opportunity in Indianapolis. For as hard as Houston played Sunday and as improved as Tennessee is this season, the AFC South remains arguably the worst division in the NFL. The Colts didn’t have an easy road home (at Minnesota and Oakland the next two weeks), but they did have a chance Sunday to plant themselves atop the standings.
They do not deserve to be there, though. Indianapolis has had too many mind-numbing slip-ups this season to sit in first place in mid-December.
Neither the Texans nor Titans are flawless, either, but they showed up Sunday when it mattered. As a result, they could go at it for the division crown in three weeks while the Colts, deservedly, watch from afar.