SCOUTING THE DIVISION

AFC South playoff health check

Marcus Mariota seems to have regressed. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A look at the teams in the AFC South as they prepare for the stretch run:

Tennessee Titans 7-4

Symptoms: In now his third season, Marcus Mariota has appeared to regress at the quarterback position. With just nine touchdowns and a dismal 79.1 rating, the Titans have been very fortunate to squeak by with close victories against the Browns, Ravens, Bengals, and Colts.

Diagnosis: Despite inconsistent play on both sides of the ball, the Titans find themselves tied on top of the division with five games to play. From a statistical perspective, their road to 7-4 has been far less impressive than Jacksonville. However, it’s Tennessee who’s also responsible for the Jaguars biggest loss of the year with a 21 point throttling back in September.

Treatment: A healthy dose of Derrick Henry could catapult Mariota and the offense out of its extended malaise. Of his 520 rushing yards, 448 of them were gained during the seven victories. In last week’s victory against Indianapolis, Henry was critical down the stretch accumulating 78 4th quarter rushing yards.

Prognosis:  The path to a wildcard berth looks a lot more likely than a division championship but, both are very much still in play. The Titans’ remaining schedule consists of: TEXANS, @cardinals, @49ers, RAMS, JAGUARS.

If Tennessee can stay within one game of Jacksonville, then a New Year’s Eve showdown will decide the division.

The Rams and Cardinals will certainly be tough challenges to overcome. Although, it’s looking more and more likely that nine wins will be enough to edge out the Bills or Ravens for a playoff spot. The Titans may be thankful come tiebreaker time for their three point victory over Baltimore.

Houston Texans 4-7

Symptoms: It’s one thing to overcome a key injury or two, but what do you do when every star player gets hurt? That’s essentially what Houston has dealt with for much of the season. It doesn’t get much better on Sunday with Will Fuller ruled out with a rib injury.

Diagnosis: Tom Savage clearly has chilled. Last week’s final two drives pretty much summed up the season, a fumble followed by an interception. It was a game they desperately needed and they showed nothing at all in the final quarter.

Treatment: Find a way to win them all! While it seems unlikely, they at least have a shot. If Houston can grind out a win against Tennessee, they then return home for a very winnable contest against the 49ers.

Prognosis: Much like the Packers in the NFC, this team just appears to be snakebit. While they are not technically eliminated, there are no other paths to the playoffs outside of the proverbial running the table. While the future looks bright, I don’t see a realistic postseason opportunity in the coming weeks.

Jacksonville Jaguars 7-4

Symptoms: Blake Bortles.

Diagnosis: This is the fourth season the fans of Jacksonville have suffered through a real nasty case of the Bortles virus. While the record may appear impressive, Bortles arguably has played well in no more than three games this season. The dominant defense has been able to mask many of the side effects of having the former third pick overall under center. The biggest question for the Jaguars is how to put their quarterback in a position to not lose any games on his own. The ship has long sailed on any thoughts that Bortles could help propel the team to victories.

Treatment: Win the games you’re supposed to win. This means knocking off the Colts, 49ers, and the Texans for a second time. That alone will secure a playoff berth and possibly be enough to win the division.

Prognosis: The Jaguars really blew a big opportunity in Arizona last week. I expect them to rebound with three straight home games. A statement win against Seattle should position this bunch to be competing for a possible bye.

Indianapolis Colts 3-8

Prognosis: Nope. Not happening. Head Coach Chuck Pagano couldn’t have seemed more defeated after last week’s loss to Tennessee. The only drama left for this season is whether Pagano makes it through the final few weeks.

 

Drew Brees and the Saints escaped with an ugly win. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Saints have effectively wrapped up the NFC South with their 25-14 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs. Here's how I saw things:

The Good

-Michael Thomas got himself going this week after a subpar performance against the Cowboys last week. He finished with 11 catches for 98 yards. More of note was his record of most catches in first three seasons. He surpassed Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on his second catch, his 289th of his career. I hope people take notice and realize how great of a player he is.

-Taysom Hill once again proved his worth as just a football player. He blocked a punt the Saints recovered at the Tampa 30 yard line. It helped set up their first touchdown. Hill is listed as the third string quarterback, but plays running back, wide receiver, and special teams. He also drew a double team penalty on a kickoff.

-Drew Brees is known for his pinpoint accuracy throwing the ball. However, his athleticism is underrated. He notched his fourth rushing touchdown on a 4th and goal play in which he leapt over the line and extended the ball across the plane. The Saints took the lead early in the fourth quarter on that play.

The Bad

-Right before the half, Brees threw an interception that set up Tampa's second touchdown. When this team is rolling, they are the ones scoring before the half when they're getting the ball back after the half.

-They totaled just three rushing yards in the first half on nine attempts. The longest run was from fullback Zach Line at four yards. Another component of this team's success is predicated on the run game.

-Alvin Kamara was held in check. He was limited to 87 yards on 17 touches. His 76 yards on three kick returns were a help, but this team needs him to get going running and catching passes in order to operate at full capacity.

The Ugly

-This was the second game in a row that the Saints failed to score a touchdown in the first half. It could be a sign of teams catching up to them, or it could be a sign of a team that's feeling complacent. Either way, they need to get their offense going again to start games. 24 plays and 104 yards of offense that produced only three points in the first half.

-On their opening possession of the second half, Brees was stripped in the pocket and the Bucs recovered. The pressure came from the left. Missing starting left tackle Terron Armstead is becoming more and more of a glaring issue.

-Brees was limited to less than 270 yards passing, while they also totaled less than 130 yards rushing. Being held below their season averages on offense and still winning is the definition of winning ugly.

The Saints are now 11-2 and firmly in second place in the NFC. Now, they sit back and hope the Rams drop another game down the stretch. They own the tiebreaker over the Rams and need to finish with the same record to get homefield throughout the NFC playoffs. Saints fans will be Bears fans tonight, as well as Eagles, Cardinals, and 49er fans the rest of the season. This is what happens when you drop games you should've won.

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