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.

 

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Houston now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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