JACKSONVILLE – Senior correspondent Brian Sexton examines the AFC South entering Week 14 of the 2023 NFL season …
Texans first-year Head Coach DeMeco Ryans is as good a candidate for NFL Coach of the Year Honors as there is in 2023. He has the 7-5 Texans in the hunt for the AFC South title with a roster that appeared at least a year or two away when the season began.
On Sunday he'll square off against the man most responsible for who he is as an NFL coach and where he seems headed. Ryans was dabbling in media in 2017 when the phone rang with then-San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Salah offering an opportunity.
"He's like, 'Hey, DeMeco, are you serious? Are you sure you want to get in?'" Ryans recalled of Saleh, who knew he was thinking about coaching. "They're making sure I was all-in on coaching because they know the dedication and the time that it takes."
The two men knew each other from Ryans' playing days with the Texans, which overlapped with Saleh's tenure there as an assistant coach. Ryans jumped at the chance and performed at a high level, which earned him Saleh's job when he left in 2021 to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Now they'll face off when the Texans and Jets meet at MetLife Stadium Sunday.
"I learned a lot from Saleh and owe a lot to him, and that's probably the reason why I'm standing here before you: because of him just taking me under his wing and teaching me the ropes," Ryans said. "Much credit to Saleh for that. Just great, great man off the field — great man. Great father, great husband — just a really stand-up guy that I have the utmost respect for."
The Colts are also 7-5 and pushing for at least a Wild Card berth in the AFC, which is a bit of a surprise since they're playing with a backup quarterback and have played without star running back Jonathan Taylor for a good bit of the season.
Entering Week 14, they're scoring 25 points per game, the eighth-highest total in the league. Quarterback Gardner Minshew II has 12 turnovers and 13 interceptions.
Minshew on Sunday fumbled in the red zone, missed a throw that led to a defensive two-point conversion, missed two would-be touchdowns and slid down two yards short of the first-down marker. In overtime, Minshew hit a 55-yard bomb to wide receiver Alex Pierce and fired the game-winner to wide receiver Michael Pittman two plays later.
"He has that next-play mentality," Colts Head Coach Shane Steichen said. "No matter what. Obviously, he has good plays. Playing quarterback in this league ain't easy. You're going to have good plays. You're going to have bad plays. But when you do have bad plays, you come to the sideline and keep marching on."
Minshew, who left Jacksonville and Philadelphia in search of another opportunity, found one in Indianapolis and continues to find them week by week and play by play.
"I think it is a lot of what Shane always says: Finding a way to win, whatever that's going to be," Minshew said. "They're going to try to take something away, and we've got to adapt and make it work."
There weren't many bright spots for the Titans as they walked off the field last week after their overtime loss to the Colts.
At 4-7 and with a trip to Miami for Monday Night Football on tap, their season seems headed towards another season without the playoffs. All-Pro defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons left the loss to the Colts with a knee injury that will keep him out for a few weeks and star running back Derrick Henry is in the concussion protocol.
Which brings us to one of the few Titans players with a reason to smile. Rookie running back Tyjae Spears made a crucial play at the end of regulation, knocking down a ball that came out of quarterback Will Levis' hands unexpectedly and keeping it from being an interception.
"I'm trying to get it and hit it with or without him," Spears said of taking over for the injured Henry. "That's my boy. He knows it. But I've got to do what I've got to do."
Spears is a player the Titans hope can be the replacement for an aging superstar whose contract expires after the 2023 season. They saw enough in his-16 carry, 75-yard performance to feel good about him Sunday. He knows the future might be as strange as it felt on Sunday without No. 22 next to him.
"Yeah, it was very weird," Spears said. "Usually it'll be me and him. I was looking to the sideline and there wasn't no him. I was like 'Dang.'"