JACKSONVILLE – One week down, 16 to go – and doesn't that sound strange to say?
The expected leaders who were supposed to be at the top of the AFC South are relieved to essentially have a full season remaining after ugly home losses. But let's start this week's Story of the South in Houston, where the Texans celebrated a Week 1 victory over the Jaguars with their coach – AND for their coach.
Head Coach David Culley ignored the outside noise that surrounded the Texans this summer. The long-time face of the franchise, defensive end J.J. Watt, was gone on defense and the new face of franchise, quarterback Deshaun Watson, demanded a trade and then was subsequently the target of multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation. Culley's hiring, meanwhile, was largely panned as the only guy they could get to take the job despite his 27 seasons in professional football.
Culley's players were quick to his defense in the locker room after a 37-21 Week 1 victory over Jacksonville, presenting him with the game ball and telling anyone who would listen how much they enjoyed playing for him.
“Everything that’s been going on in the offseason, everything that’s been going on with our team, everyone talking about us outside the building and about Culley being a coach, I’m really proud for him to come out and lead us to a victory,” running back David Johnson said. “I was really glad that he got the game ball from the players. We appreciate everything he’s done to get us here. But it’s a long season and we’re always going to fight for him and do everything we can to help him get victories.” Texans running back David Johnson
There were similar thoughts concerning quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who had to hear that he wasn't Deshaun Watson and instead a guy who was there to get them from this season to their next franchise quarterback. His teammates were having none of it.
"There's something about Tyrod that makes me want to work harder," center Justin Britt said. "Just with his history in the NFL. I want him to flourish. I want him to have a great year. If he has a great year than we have a great year. I'm not going to let people take shots on him. I think all of us up front feel that way."
Britt and his offensive line teammates have their work cut out for them on Sunday as Taylor returns to Cleveland for the first time since he played for the Browns in 2018 before giving way to quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The Titans were flummoxed on both sides of the ball in Nashville after Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray accounted for five touchdowns and the Cardinals defense shut down Titans running back Derrick Henry. Free agent wide receiver Julio Jones made only three catches for 29 yards and an offensive line that was thought to be the strength of the Titans was left dazed and confused by Arizona defensive end Chandler Jones, who had a career-high five sacks.
Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel may have been dazed by his team's irregular performance, especially in Nashville, but he wasn't confused about why it happened. The implication in Tennessee this week is that a team that was 20-10 in its last 30 games perhaps saw itself as having already arrived.
"Your best players, they have to play good on Sunday for you to win," Vrabel said. "That's how this game is set up. That didn't happen for us on Sunday. The only thing we need to focus on when we wake up tomorrow morning is that were ready to go to work, that we're ready to improve. And quit thinking about being good. We've got to go and be good."
Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan has been one of the game's best, having been to the Pro Bowl and named All Pro. He didn't allow a sack in 2020 and in each of the last two seasons before that he allowed only two sacks all year, but on Sunday against Jones, he gave up a pair. He took to Twitter this week to fall on the sword and let folks know he took it personally:
"Got my butt kicked today, no way around that. I let the team and the fans down. Thank you @chanjones55 for exposing me. It will only force me to get better."
That's the kind of humility and accountability Vrabel is looking for as the Titans head to Seattle Sunday for another big game. If they don't play well, it could put them behind schedule as it relates to their playoff position – or at least the place they are thinking they belong.
Colts Head Coach Frank Reich wasn't chastising his team after a 28-16 loss to the Seahawks in Indianapolis, but he wasn't happy that an offensive line considered among the best in the NFL allowed three sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 18 total pressures of quarterback Carson Wentz.
"Overall, the protection aspect was probably not up to our standards," he said earlier this week. "There was a little bit more to it than just the offensive line play, but we need to be better. We need to be better as coaches, we need to be better as players in that area. We have very high standards there."
The Colts' offensive line was in flux for most of August with All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson and center Ryan Kelly dealing with injury and illness and free-agent left tackle Eric Fisher still working back from an Achilles injury from 2020. Fisher is still considered week-to-week and you can add right tackle Braden Smith to the injury report with a foot issue he sustained on Sunday.
Meanwhile there were more direct conversations with linebacker Darius Leonard whose expectations for that side of the ball are equal to the offensive line. The Colts' highly regarded, and very talented defense, allowed Seattle 5.8 yards per carry and hit them for eight explosive plays. That happens when you play Russell Wilson, but Leonard was having none of it.
"You get your (butt) kicked, what do you think?" the linebacker retorted to a question he thought had an obvious answer. "You're pissed off. We didn't do enough on our side. You're upset. You've got to find a way to get the job done."
The silver lining for both the Colts and Titans is that each faces a brutal start to the season so neither likely will get too far ahead of the other early.