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Story of the South: Week 8

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JACKSONVILLE – Quarterback Deshaun Watson still isn't playing in Houston and the Texans are headed for the bottom of the standings and the top of the NFL Draft. That became inevitable when the franchise's relationship with Watson and his legal issues went sideways.

That was expected, even if a Week 1 win over the Jaguars provided an early lift.

Now, the Texans are in the throes of a six-game losing streak with a trip to face the Los Angeles Rams up next – and they embraced their situation this week by trading veteran running back Mark Ingram to New Orleans.

Houston Texans running back Mark Ingram II (2) carries the ball during a NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)

Why keep Ingram and his salary in a season in which the priority is the future not the present? The reported haul was a third- and sixth-round pick, which made it the right move for the franchise even if it means losing its leading rusher.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks wasn't so happy that a good player and one of his good friends was traded a week after Houston released pass rusher Whitney Mercilus.

"This is (expletive)," Cooks posted on Twitter. "Such a joke."

Ingram, though, seemed cool with returning to the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft and is currently in second place in the NFC South a game behind the Buccaneers.

"There have been some struggles and tough times," he said about a Texans team that was once a perennial favorite in the AFC South but has fallen on hard times. "But I know there are good people in the organization, good people on the team."

Now the question around the Texans is who else might be playing elsewhere as the November 2 trade deadline approaches next week?

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) against the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

The Colts are alive in the AFC South, though they're two games behind the Titans – who beat them 25-16 in Nashville in Week 2. Winners of three of their last four games, the Colts are coming off a big win on the road in the rain in San Francisco Sunday and feeling good about the rematch with the Titans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Perhaps the biggest reason they believe is second-year running back Jonathan Taylor, who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and can help them balance the scales against the Titans.

Jaguars running back James Robinson rushed for a career-high 149 yards against the Titans in Week 5, a performance that allowed the Jaguars to keep the game close into the fourth quarter. Taylor is capable of the same and can score from anywhere on the field.

Taylor current ranks second in the NFL – though far behind Titans running back Derrick Henry, who leads the league with 869 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns in seven games.

Taylor is, however, coming off a dominant performance against the 49ers in which he rushed 18 times for 107 yards and a touchdown.

"Any given play when we hand it to him, I'm like, shoot, this thing could go the distance," Wentz said. "It's fun. It's fun to turn around and give it to a guy like that."

Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel watches from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The Titans, who are rolling with back-to-back wins over the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, understand how big Sunday is for them. If they beat the Colts, they can all but celebrate the AFC South title and a spot in the playoffs with a three-game lead over Indy and a season sweep to their credit.

"We understand the magnitude of division games on the road, how challenging that will be," Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel said this week.

Those wins over AFC contenders have transformed the Titans from a team that started slowly this season into the hottest team in the conference – and perhaps the favorite.

"Our players put a lot into it, I'm happy for them," Vrabel said. "But we're moving on to the Colts to try and prepare for a huge division game on the road; that's what this league is about. Win or lose, you've got to come back and be ready to go. Next challenge. You sleep on anybody in this league, it's going to come back to haunt you."

Vrabel's veteran team is paying close attention to their coach and the direction he is setting.

"(It maybe) bigger than the two games we've just played," safety Kevin Byard said. "We beat this team, obviously we get more ahead in the division. It puts them a little farther back. This is a huge game for us, in my opinion. A must-win game."

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz is coming off perhaps his best game of the season and is healthy – as opposed to Week 3, when he played on two sore ankles. But while Wentz has thrown 11 touchdowns and just one interception, the Titans are focused on how well the Colts are running.

"They view their running back, No. 28 (Taylor) like how we view Derrick Henry," Byard said. "They want to run the ball. They want to be physical."

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