JACKSONVILLE – There is a real chance for an AFC South title chase as the season draws to a close.
The Indianapolis Colts (8-6) stand a game behind the Tennessee Titans (9-5) with three games remaining, with the Titans' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday opening the door for the Colts – who came through with a big win over the New England Patriots the night before.
But – and it's a big one – the Colts are actually two games back because of two head-to-head losses to the Titans. So, can the Colts – behind running back Jonathan Taylor – catch the Titans, who are without running back Derrick Henry?
The next two weeks will decide.
Indianapolis plays on the road Christmas night against a reeling Arizona Cardinals squad that must regain its footing in the NFC playoff chase. Then they host the Las Vegas Raiders (7-7), who are still very much in the race for one of three AFC Wild Card spots. The Colts finish the season against the Jaguars in Jacksonville.
Tennessee has a similar challenge. They hosted San Francisco (8-6) in a big Thursday Night Football matchup Thursday night, then will play red-hot Miami (7-7) in Nashville before traveling to face the Texans in Houston.
The Colts are riding a Taylor Train that could pull into MVP Station. The second-year running back is the NFL's leading rusher through 14 weeks, leading the NFL in touches and handling the ball on 67 percent of the Colts' offensive snaps in 2021.
"I feel good," Taylor said. "I'm really pleased with the way my body has responded."
The bulk of his efforts have come in the last five games. After not breaking the 20-carry mark in his first nine games, he has averaged 26 carries and 27 touches in the last five. The Colts know the value of giving him a rest and understand they must have him to make a playoff push. But it's tough not to hand him the ball.
"I was planning on playing Nyheim (Hines) a little bit more, actually, I was really even thinking about putting Deon (Jackson) in there for three or four carries," Head Coach Frank Reich said. "In the course of the game, I said, 'No, let's just keep J.T. in there.' He felt fresh, he looked fresh. Felt like we needed every yard out of him that we could get."
The Titans shut out the Jaguars two weeks ago, but turned the ball over four times in a 19-13 loss to the Steelers and now have 13 giveaways over three losses in the last month.
"It's what's holding us back right now," offensive coordinator Todd Dowling said. "It's pretty clear that when we can hang onto the football, we can move it. We can go score points. Unfortunately, too many times we've been handing it back to the other team and putting our defense in a tough position."
Tennessee remarkably has continued to run effectively without Henry. Running back D'Onta Foreman put up 108 yards against the Steelers and the Titans ran for 201 – their third-highest rushing total of the season.
"It's an individual commitment to taking care of the football," Downing said. "Like you're doing it for the rest of your teammates and their families. Everyone has to commit to that."
There isn't a franchise-caliber quarterback at the top of next April's 2022 NFL Draft, but the Texans don't necessarily need to use their high first-round pick on a quarterback. Not the way that third-round pick Davis Mills has played in recent weeks.
Mills has put together solid showings in back-to-back weeks and has 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions to earn a passer rating of 82.2 this season – higher than any rookie quarterback other than New England's Mac Jones.
"I think having to play when he did has benefited him to this point," Texans Head Coach David Culley said. "He's progressing very well."
A lot of credit is being directed to Texans quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who held the same role in Los Angeles in 2020 and helped Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
"Pep's making sure fundamentally that he's (Mills) doing things he needs to do to improve," Culley said. "He doesn't make the same mistakes twice. His decision making is much better now. The game has kind of slowed down for him."
Mills, who has watched plenty of tape from Herbert's rookie season, pointed to the way he approached his workday and workweek as examples of where Hamilton has helped him improve over the course of the season.
"I think the biggest thing is just staying to my routine, that quarterback routine that we've laid out with Pep and other quarterbacks and the strength staff," said Mills. "Just staying consistent and making sure I'm getting my full week of preparation and being confident going into the game."
If he can, the confidence Houston General Manager Nick Cesario has in him might grow enough for the Texans to avoid reaching for the quarterback everyone assumed the Texans would seek in 2022.