Normally, the Indianapolis Colts would be in major trouble without the services of quarterback Andrew Luck for what may be an extended period of time.
The AFC South, though, is anything but normal this season.
Better words to describe it: terrible, pathetic, horrific . . .
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In fact, I could keep spewing negativity until Luck recovers from the lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle suffered in last Sunday’s 27-24 win over Denver. The timetable given by the Colts for Luck’s recovery is two to six weeks.
In a best-case scenario, Luck may have to miss only one game with Indianapolis (4-5) on a bye this weekend. The Colts return to play at Atlanta on Nov. 22, then are at home the following week against Tampa Bay.
Even if Luck is sidelined until late December, the Colts seem destined to win what is on track to be the worst division in NFL history.
There is scant reason to believe that any of the other three AFC South teams — Houston, Jacksonville or Tennessee — can get their acts together and make a sustained push for the division crown.
Already installed by oddsmakers as a 10½-point underdog, the second-place Texans are likely headed toward a 3-6 record with a Monday night game upcoming in Cincinnati (8-0). There is no reason to believe Houston is going to beat New England (8-0) when the Patriots roll into Reliant Stadium in Week 13.
AFC SOUTH STANDINGS
The Texans have already lost once to the Colts this season and would have to win again in Week 15 at Indianapolis to split the head-to-head tiebreaker. Non-division games against Buffalo (4-4), New Orleans (4-5) and the New York Jets (5-3) loom as well for a Texans squad that’s a mess offensively and underachieving defensively.
While showing improvement from last season, Jacksonville (2-6) seems a year away from being a bona fide AFC South challenger. The Jaguars squandered the chance to make a statement earlier this season when letting a Luckless (shoulder/ribs) Indianapolis off the hook in a 16-13 Week 4 overtime loss to Indianapolis. An inability to close out opponents has haunted the Jaguars for years and helps explain why Jacksonville hasn’t posted consecutive victories since a three-game winning streak during Weeks 12-14 of the 2013 season.
That leaves Tennessee, which ended the ignominy of being one of the NFL’s two one-win teams with last Sunday’s overtime upset in New Orleans. That feel-good vibe is likely to end Sunday, when the Titans (2-6) host Carolina (8-0). Oakland, the Jets and New England round out Tennessee’s non-conference schedule.
As for the Colts, only one of their final six opponents (Pittsburgh in Week 13) is currently above .500. Three games are against AFC South foes — all of whom have failed to beat the Colts in 16 consecutive matchups. That marks the longest division winning streak in NFL history.
Backup Matt Hasselbeck can’t make the same spectacular plays as Luck at this point in his 17-year NFL career. But as evidenced by his 2-0 record against the Jaguars and Texans earlier this year, the 40-year-old Hasselbeck is more than competent enough to adequately handle the quarterbacking responsibilities until Luck returns.
It has become obvious that the 2015 Colts aren’t the Super Bowl threat that oddsmakers and some media crowned them before the start of the season, for a variety of reasons. There is the behind-the-scenes power struggle that almost assuredly will end the pairing of head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson in January. Grigson made a series of offseason roster moves that have been as heavily criticized as Pagano’s ill-fated decision to call for a swinging-gate fake punt in last month’s loss to New England.
The offense struggled enough that coordinator Pep Hamilton was fired. Luck himself seems to have regressed while taking a beating in his fourth NFL season.
Yet thanks to bigger problems being experienced by Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee as well as the fact Colts players have continued to show fight throughout tough times, none of these issues should keep Indianapolis from winning a fourth straight AFC South title — even if it comes with a record (7-9 or 6-10) as ugly as the division itself.