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AFC South Teams Continue To Push Through Adversity

W15 Story of the South

JACKSONVILLE – Senior correspondent Brian Sexton examines the AFC South entering Week 15 of the 2023 NFL season …

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were among the NFL's best running teams in September. Rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson and running back Zach Moss kept the Indianapolis offense balanced. The Colts rushed for at least 126 yards in six of their first eight games, a strong showing while they waited for All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor to rejoin the team.

The thought was a combination of Richardson and Taylor would give the Colts the kind of running game that would make the young quarterback much more effective as he learned the NFL. But then Richardson hurt his shoulder and was lost for the season, and Taylor took some time to get to speed before sustaining a thumb injury. Now, the Colts have failed to rush for 100 or more yards in four of their last five games and it's starting to make things difficult for quarterback Gardner Minshew II.

The Colts managed only 46 rushing yards in a loss to the Bengals this past Sunday, which helped the Bengals pressure their way to sacks, turnovers and penalties.

"The (Bengals) were more of a nickel team; they came out and played more base," Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox said. "Against those base packages is where we've had a little bit more trouble than the other stuff. We've just got to find ways to make plays against those."

There is some optimism Taylor will return shortly, which could help the Colts to stay balanced over the stretch run, which could force defensive to adjust their personnel and perhaps open things up. Taylor only has 100 carries this season but is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has the kind of big play potential for which defenses must account.

"Any time you get one-dimensional, it gives the other team an advantage," Minshew said.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) sacks Indianapolis Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew II (10) in the second half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Houston Texans

Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans sounded like the former NFL player he is this while talking about his rookie quarterback and the concussion protocol. Ryans understands the challenges of coming back from a concussion and wasn't willing to push his young superstar back onto the field too soon.

"Many guys haven't come back the following week after a concussion," Ryans said. "At the end of the day, no matter the position, no matter who the guy is, you have to make sure your guys are healthy, and we are protecting guys."

Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud is the clear choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year. His surprising performance this season has the Texans and their fans dreaming of the playoffs for the first time since 2019. If he can't play on Sunday as the Texans face the Titans, they will start Davis Mills – who is 5-19-1 in 25 starts.

"It's more about their long-term health, as opposed to everybody gets excited about the next game and the next opportunity," Ryans said. "We care about these guys as men off the field, and making sure they're healthy is of the utmost importance to us.".

Houston Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Tennessee Titans

The Titans 28-27 come-from-behind win over Miami on Monday Night Football sent shock waves through the NFL. How does a team starting a rookie quarterback on the road in Miami beat a Dolphins team that was a win from keeping pace with the Ravens at the top of the AFC standings?

The Titans hadn't won on the road in more than a year and didn't score a touchdown in Tampa, New Orleans or Cleveland this season. They scored two touchdowns in less than a minute and added a two-point conversion to pull the upset Monday.

"That was a huge opportunity for our football team to see us compete, to find ways to win the game as opposed to find ways to lose it," Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel said. "Try to eliminate some of the bad football, things that are going to get you beat. We stuck around and we were the ones that made plays in the critical situations."

That has been the personality of the Titans under Vrabel, who started his career in Nashville with four consecutive winning seasons and back-to-back AFC South titles. Tennessee is always ready to play and never seems overwhelmed, which says a lot about the belief the Titans have in their head coach.

"If you can go out and you do it, that's how you build confidence," Vrabel said. "Whether that's in practice or most importantly the game, you have to be able to see those things and have small victories."

The Titans are likely to look different in 2024. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a free agent, running back Derrick Henry is in the final year of his deal and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is on an expiring contract. But for a night in Miami, these Titans looked like those Titans.

"It felt like the old Titans team," linebacker Harold Landry said.

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