AFC South Notebook: Every team’s outlook at the three-quarter mark

Chuck Pagano's Colts, who have won 16 straight against AFC South opponents, play three division games down the stretch.

Jason Bridge/Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Remaining schedule makes Indianapolis the favorite

Despite falling well short of preseason expectation thus far, the Colts (6-6), enter Week 14 tied for first place with the Texans in the AFC South and best-positioned to win the division. Indianapolis, which has won 16 straight games against AFC South opponents, plays three divisional games down the stretch and none of the Colts’ four remaining opponents have a winning record.

While the schedule looks promising on paper, the Colts continue to deal with issues at quarterback. Starter Andrew Luck has missed the last three games with a lacerated kidney, including last Sunday’s blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. His backup, Matt Hasselbeck, filled in capably before struggling against Pittsburgh. Hasselbeck left Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter after being injured, with the team saying on Monday that the 17-year veteran is dealing with a stiff neck and a mild rib separation.

Despite those injuries, head coach Chuck Pagano said he expects Hassselbeck to practice this week and be available to play Sunday against the Jaguars. If he can’t Charlie Whitehurst would get the start, with Luck not expected back until at least Week 15.

If Hasselbeck can indeed play this week, the Colts should be fine heading into next weekend’s pivotal game against the Texans.  If Luck indeed returns against Houston, it will provide an added bonus of giving him three games to prepare before heading into the postseason.

UP NEXT: at Jacksonville (W), Houston (W), at Miami (W), Tennessee (W)

PREDICTION: 10-6, first place in the AFC South

Defense needs to bounce back if Texans hope to make playoffs

The Texans’ rise to the top of the division standings was fueled by a suffocating defensive effort in the team’s four-game winning streak that held opponents to an average of just 8.75 points per game.  Sunday’s loss to the Bills was a noticeable departure, with Houston (6-6), giving up 30 points and allowing Buffalo to run for 187 yards on the ground.

The Texans next face a pair of difficult opponents back-to-back in the Patriots and Colts, and Houston’s hopes for winning the division may well rest on winning both games. That’s a tall task, but if the Houston defense can return to its previous form, it’s not impossible.

Despite the defense’s struggles last week, the running game continues to make a late-season contribution. Led by Chris Polk’s 61 yards, the Texans topped the 100-yard rushing mark for the third straight week. For a team that struggled establishing the run in the wake of Arian Foster’s absence this season, the success on the ground in recent weeks has helped open things up for the offense.

UP NEXT: Patriots (L), at Colts (L), at Titans (W), Jacksonville (W)

PREDICTION: 8-8, second place in AFC South

Offense coming together in Jacksonville, but defensive issues remain

At 4-8, the Jaguars have dropped two straight after winning three of four, a disappointing slide for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.

Tight end Julius Thomas, who failed to make an impact for much of the year after breaking a bone in his hand during the preseason, has come on of late.  The two-time Pro Bowler had a season-high 116 yards receiving in the team’s loss to San Diego two weeks ago and has caught a touchdown in three straight games.

While Jacksonville’s offensive core of quarterback Blake Bortles, Thomas, running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns have demonstrated considerable reason for optimism, the defense continues to be a trouble spot. The Jaguars inability to generate a pass rush has been a season-long issue and will once again be a priority as the team enters he offseason.

UP NEXT: Colts (L), Falcons (L), at Saints (L), at Texans (L)

PREDICTION: 4-12, third place in AFC South

Mariota makes his case as a franchise quarterback in Tennessee

The Titans (3-9), have won two of three games under interim head coach Mike Mularkey and have a budding franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. Sunday’s 42-39 win over the Jaguars provided an example of why the future looks bright in Tennessee, as Mariota became the first quarterback to throw for more than 250 yards, run for more than 100 yards and throw three touchdowns in a single game.

Beyond Mariota, plenty of questions remain, and the Titans will need the final four weeks of the season to determine exactly what the team has around him.  The offensive line, which has surrendered 39 sacks thus far, should be an offseason priority. Cornerback is another area in need of an upgrade.

UP NEXT: at Jets (L), at Patriots (L), Texans (L), at Colts (L)

PREDICTION: 3-13, fourth place in AFC South