AFC South Reporter
At 9-7, the Jaguars, Colts and Texans all control their playoff destiny entering the final week of the regular season.
The message is simple for all three teams: Win and you’re in.
While all three teams have a chance at the division title, Jacksonville is in the driver’s seat for the AFC South crown because it holds tiebreakers over both teams. The Jags can win the division for a second straight year by beating the Titans in their regular-season finale Sunday afternoon, or with a tie plus a tie in the Colts-Texans game Saturday night.
If the Titans upset the Jaguars, the winner of Colts-Texans wins the AFC South. While the only way for the Texans to win the division is by beating the Colts and the Jaguars falling to the Titans, the Colts can also take the division with a tie Saturday and a Jaguars loss.
Here’s a breakdown of what makes each of the teams dangerous — and what makes them vulnerable — ahead of their hopeful playoff bids.
Why they’re dangerous: Josh Allen, Travon Walker
Not only does the Jaguars defense typically go as Josh Allen goes, but the entire team goes how he goes.
Jacksonville is 6-2 when he has at least half a sack, including 5-0 when he has two sacks. The fourth-year outside linebacker has a strong case as the Jaguars’ best player. In last week’s 26-0 shutout of the Panthers, Allen broke Calais Campbell’s single-season franchise record for sacks. He’s up to 16.5 on the year — third in the NFL — after registering three against Carolina.
Allen and second-year pro Travon Walker (9 sacks), last year’s No. 1 pick, have a combined 25.5 sacks, the most of any duo in the NFL. Jacksonville has seen improvement in generating pressure this year — it ranks 13th in the NFL with a 36.4% pressure rate, according to Next Gen Stats — which helps a takeaway-dependent defense get more turnovers. Jacksonville is tied for sixth in the league with 26 takeaways and is 6-2 when it has at least two of them.
Allen and Walker will have an opportunity to feast against the Titans’ shoddy offensive line in the regular-season finale. Tennessee has allowed 62 sacks and a 42.2% pressure rate, the latter of which is second-worst in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
Why inconsistent Jaguars are still a dangerous team
Why they’re vulnerable: Trevor Lawrence‘s health, turnovers
While backup C.J. Beathard performed admirably to help lead the Jags to a victory last week, his first start in three years, Jacksonville’s hopes of a playoff bid — and a run — may hinge on Lawrence, who missed the first game of his career last week with an injured right shoulder. The good news is that coach Doug Pederson expects the former No. 1 pick to be limited in practice Wednesday.
Turnovers have been the Jaguars’ biggest Achilles’ heel this season. A number of them have come in plus territory and the red zone, maddening for an offense that has as much talent as any in the NFL at the skill positions. Jacksonville ranks fifth-worst with 28 sacks, 10 of which came in their four-game losing streak in December.
Against Carolina, Jacksonville played turnover-free football for the first time since Week 13. Can the team maintain momentum there for the regular season finale — or was last week just a blip against the NFL’s worst team?
Why they’re dangerous: C.J. Stroud, defensive line
While not surprising, the Texans offense looked completely different in last week’s win over the Titans with the return of Stroud, who had missed the previous two games with a concussion. The rhythm and flow and efficiency we had grown accustomed to from Houston with Stroud was back. He didn’t really miss a beat, either. He completed 75% of his passes for 213 yards and a touchdown with a 102.7 passer rating.
Despite being a rookie, Stroud has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a player who can put the Texans on his shoulders. Before the concussion, he ranked second in the league in passing yards and registered two game-winning drives, including one against the Bucs in which he threw for 470 yards — an NFL single-game record for a rookie — and five touchdowns. Houston carries itself differently with Stroud on the field.
C.J. Stroud on striving to make the playoffs: “It’s all about us”
Defensively, Texans coach DeMeco Ryans has said how the defensive line sets the tone for the unit. And it’s true statistically. Houston is 6-3 when it has at least three sacks. The Texans in Week 16 barely touched Joe Flacco, who carved them up in a Browns victory, playing without edge rushers Jonathan Greenard (ankle) and Will Anderson Jr. (ankle). Anderson returned last week, and even though he played just 12 snaps, he recorded a team-high two sacks and six pressures to lead the Texans’ six-sack effort in a thrashing of the Titans.
[READ MORE: How DeMeco Ryans, C.J. Stroud elevated a franchise: ‘It’s everybody vs. the Texans’]
Worth monitoring as the week progresses: The Texans’ entire starting defensive line — Anderson, Greenard, Maliek Collins (hip), Sheldon Rankins (ankle) — were listed as DNPs on Tuesday’s injury report, as Houston held a walk-through.
Why they’re vulnerable: secondary
When the Texans aren’t generating pressure, it has created all kinds of problems on the back end. Houston is tied for 25th in pass defense, allowing 240.4 passing yards per game.
The team has allowed 56 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season, sixth-most in the league, according to Sportradar. Of those, 24 have come since Week 12, which is third most in the NFL in that span. Starting safety Jimmie Ward was placed on injured reserve last week. Jalen Pitre has had an up-and-down second season after a terrific rookie campaign.
Houston added reinforcements with safety Kareem Jackson — he was waived by the Broncos after two suspensions for repeated violations of unnecessary roughness rules — and it has strong cornerback play between Derek Stingley Jr. and Steven Nelson, but the secondary has been boom or bust all season.
Why they’re dangerous: Pass rush
The pass rush has been the Colts’ biggest and most consistent strength this season. It’s why the team has been able to win as much as it has despite its obvious flaws.
The Colts rank fifth in the NFL with 49 sacks, which is also an Indianapolis-era franchise record (1984-present). The Colts are pressuring opponents on 39.2% of dropbacks, ranking seventh in the league, per Next Gen Stats.
What makes the team’s pass rush tough for opponents to game plan for is the versatility and depth the Colts have upfront. Indianapolis is the only NFL team with four different players with seven-plus sacks (DeForest Buckner, Samson Ebukam, Dayo Odeyingbo, Kwity Paye). In the past 10 seasons, only two other teams have had four such players: the 2022 Eagles and the 2017 Jaguars. Both those teams made it to at least the conference championship game.
How Shane Steichen’s coaching style has impacted Colts
Why they’re vulnerable: secondary
The secondary has been an issue for the Colts all season. After trading Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and cutting Isaiah Rodgers following a gambling-related suspension, Indianapolis has been forced to lean heavily on a mix of rookies, unproven talent and former undrafted players at cornerback. And their best cornerback, nickel Kenny Moore II, is currently dealing with a back issue and his status for Saturday is uncertain. He missed last week’s game against the Raiders.
Indianapolis has also had to shuffle parts at safety. Starter Julian Blackmon, the team’s leader in interceptions (4) and pass breakups (8), suffered a shoulder injury against the Falcons in Week 16 and was placed on injured reserve, which ended his regular season.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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