JACKSONVILLE – Senior correspondent Brian Sexton examines the AFC South entering Week 17 of the 2023 NFL season …
- Gardner Minshew II isn't the Colts' franchise quarterback. That title belongs to rookie Anthony Richardson, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. But Minshew sure sounded like the franchise leader after Indianapolis was blown out in Atlanta on Christmas Eve.
- "You've got to go and earn it right now," Minshew said. "Take this event lightly, you might not end up with another."
- Minshew and the Colts are one of the more remarkable stories of the 2023 season, battling back from the loss of Richardson and playing without All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor and defensive tackle Grover Stewart for long stretches of this season.
- While they're 8-7 and in a three-way tie atop the AFC South, because they're behind in the tiebreaking scenario Minshew's frustrations were well founded.
- Had they beaten the Falcons Sunday, they would be alone in first place and need only to win out against the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday and Houston Texans in Indianapolis in Week 18 to claim their first AFC South title since 2014.
- "Everybody thinks you've got all this time, you're going to have all these chances to make playoff runs, and it doesn't work like that," Minshew said. "We have to take advantage of them when we've got them."
- The Texans hope they'll have outstanding rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud back on Sunday when they play host to the Tennessee Titans. The Texans, like the Colts, are 8-7. If not for Stroud's injury, they might be in first place in the South.
- Stroud, who has completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,631 yards and 20 touchdowns with five interceptions, is a big reason the Texans have rebounded in his rookie campaign.
- "He's looking good," receiver Nico Collins said of Stroud, who has missed the last two games with a concussion and who is practicing limited this week. "Didn't skip a beat. Getting his groove back. C.J.'s a baller, man. Taking his time with it, make sure he's good. We need him. We miss him. Nobody wants to miss playing time with your brothers. But he knows what's at stake right now. Health is everything. Whenever he's ready to come back, you know what's up."
- The Texans know Stroud would be a huge addition, despite beating the Titans in Nashville behind quarterback Case Keenum two weeks ago. Stroud is their franchise quarterback and they're obviously better with him, but they're also aware of what it takes to return from the concussion protocol.
- "You're just looking for efficiency, being able to command the huddle, being efficient with the plays we're asking him to run," Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans said. "You're looking for him to be comfortable in the moment. The main thing is you want to keep the defenders off of him as much as possible, so we don't have another hit or anything to make him go backwards. We have to make sure we're protecting him, make sure we're playing efficient and make sure we're pressing forward moving the football."
- The Texans will win the AFC South and secure a home playoff game on Wild Card Weekend if they beat the Titans and Colts – and if the Jaguars lose to either the Panthers or Titans.
- The Titans will finish with at least 10 losses for a second consecutive season after finishing with a winning record in Head Coach Mike Vrabel's first four seasons.
- A positive takeaway from the 2023 season for the Titans: The emergence of rookie quarterback Will Levis, who in eight starts has shown franchise quarterback potential. Which is why Vrabel was hoping to get him back on the field on Sunday in Houston if his injured ankle would allow it.
- "Those are invaluable reps," Vrabel said Tuesday. "I would anticipate a great road environment (in Houston). Playing on the road in a loud environment and being able to handle the operation and work the offense, I know that's something that's always critical."
- Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing out the final two games of his career in Nashville. While he might be the better option with Levis still working his way back from the ankle injury he sustained against the Texans two weeks ago, it doesn't prepare the Titans for what's next.
- "I feel like you can't play differently," Levis said of possibly playing through injury. "I feel like you have to be able to just go full-tilt regardless of what's going on or else you'll get you and your teammates hurt. There's pain. Everyone's got pain at this point in the season. Everyone's dealing with something. You kind of just put it behind you and play as if you're not hurt."