NASHVILLE – The AFC South is not what it was.
It is different now than it was at the start of training camp. It has been altered since the regular season opened. Things are even different today than they were at this time a week ago.
Three of the division’s four teams – all except the Tennessee Titans – have lost arguably their best and/or most important player, each for a different reason. Two are gone for good. It remains to be seen about the third, although he says he will be back in 2020.
Houston’s J.J. Watt (pictured) sustained a season-ending pectoral injury on Sunday, which means the Titans won’t have to face the three-time Defensive Player of the Year at all this season. Just like they won’t have to deal with former Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, who retired unexpectedly at the end of the preseason due to continuing injury issues. They did battle Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey back in Week 3 (it did not go well) but the Jaguars traded the Pro Bowl cornerback earlier this month, which means Tennessee doesn’t have to worry about dealing with him twice a year anymore.
All three bolstered their sizable reputations with the bi-annual, intra-division contests against Tennessee. So, it is fair to wonder how much their absences will figure into the division race over the second half of the season, particularly for the Titans, who are 4-4 and have ground to make up if they are to earn a playoff spot.
“We have to find ways to improve,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I talked to the team (Wednesday) morning and explained to them what it looked like after Week 8 last year in the National Football League. The teams that were 3-5 that finished 10-6, the teams that were 5-2 that finished 7-9, the teams that were 3-4 that finished at 10-6, teams that were maybe 4-3 that finished 12-4 like the Chicago Bears and the ability to improve over the course of the season today.”
The Titans were 4-4 at the same time last year. They eventually finished 9-7 and fell one game short of a playoff spot. All three defeats over the final eight games were against division opponents (two to Indianapolis, one to Houston) and the opponents’ big names were big factors in those results.
This time, half of their remaining contests are against the AFC South (two with Houston, one each with Jacksonville and Indianapolis), all over the final six weeks. Their chances certainly seem better without Watt, Luck and Ramsey in the division.
A look at what those three players have done against the Titans over the years:
• J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston: He has 17 sacks against the Titans, which is the most he has against any single team. Zach Metenberger was a favorite target – Watt got to him six and a half times. Jake Locker was not far behind. He was dumped five time. Watt’s 22 tackles for loss also are the most against one opponents and his eight forced fumbles are more than twice as many as he has had against any other team. He also has recovered two fumbles. He even caught a touchdown pass in a 2014 contest at Houston. Not surprisingly, the Texans are 10-3 in 13 all-time matchups against the Titans in which Watt has played.
• Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars: Ramsey faced the Titans seven times, including once this season, before the Jaguars traded him to the Rams. His most impactful moment was his 30-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed a 38-17 Jacksonville victory on Dec. 24, 2016, a defeat that snapped Tennessee’s three-game win streak and cost the Titans a playoff spot. One of Ramsey’s three career forced fumbles was against Tennessee. He has just four passes defended in those seven games but more often than not he covered Tennessee’s receivers well enough that passes have not been thrown his way.
• Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts: No player caused more problems for the Titans during their time in Tennessee (possibly ever) than Luck, who faced them 11 times and won all 11. The last time they squared off was the final game of the 2018 regular season with a spot in the postseason on the line. Luck completed 24 of 35 passes for 285 yards with three touchdowns and one interception as the Colts cruised to a 33-17 triumph. All-time against Tennessee he completed 63.7 percent of his passes, threw 21 touchdowns and was intercepted nine times. His career passer rating versus the Titans was 98.4, well above his career rating (89.5).