AFC South: AFC South midseason awards
The Titans tight end said he was embarrassed after the Jaguars won 29-27 in Nashville on Nov. 10 to pick up their first victory. Since then, the Jaguars are 3-2 with victories over Houston (twice) and Cleveland. The Titans are 1-4 with a victory over Oakland.
There seems to be much more stability in Jacksonville, too, because of the uncertain status surrounding Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.
Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down Sunday’s matchup at EverBank Field.
DiRocco: Some Titans players were pretty vocal about being embarrassed due to becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars. Is that something that still stings, and how have they rebounded from that loss?
Kuharsky: It definitely left a mark. They are only 1-4 since then. It kind of set a bar for how bad they can be and re-established their propensity to lose to teams that are really struggling. The Jaguars are on an upswing since that game, and the Titans are on a downward spiral. If Tennessee losses to the Jaguars again, the Titans will be in line to finish in third place in an awful division, which is well short of their goals and expectations. The Titans are a better team than they were last year. But losing closer isn’t a really big difference in the really big picture.
Let’s turn that around. How has life changed for the Jaguars since that Nov. 10 breakthrough?
DiRocco: I could go into a lot of stats that show how much better the Jaguars are playing, but that's not what's really important. The past six games have been more about the validation of the process, establishing the foundation of the franchise's rebuild, and confidence in the new regime. Coach Gus Bradley never wavered from the plan that he and general manager David Caldwell established. His message stayed the same throughout the eight-game losing streak to start the season: trust in the process, work hard, and focus on improving and not victories, and the victories will eventually come. Because that has happened, the players appear to have completely bought into what Bradley and Caldwell want to do, and there's a confidence in the locker room that the franchise is headed in the right direction.
We talked about Jake Locker the last time these teams met, but that was before he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot. How does that change the Titans' outlook on him and are they in the market for a quarterback in the offseason, too?
Kuharsky: Locker is certain to be on the 2014 Titans. His fourth year isn’t that costly and it’s guaranteed. But they can’t execute a spring option for his fifth year that would line him up for over $13 million. A lot of his fate depends on whether Munchak is back as the head coach. It’s possible they go forward with Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and just-signed Tyler Wilson as their quarterbacks. It’s also possible they’d draft a new guy, and depending on how high of a pick he could land in competition to start. I think it’s less likely they chase a free agent like Jay Cutler if he comes free, but they have to assess all the possibilities. How can they completely commit to Locker based on his injury history?
One side effect of the Jaguars' surge is they aren’t going to be in position to draft the first quarterback taken. What’s your sense of what Bradley and Caldwell want in a quarterback and do you expect one to arrive in the first round?
DiRocco: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said something interesting last week. He said he wants his QB to scramble around, take off running to get yards and take some chances throwing the football. To me, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of Johnny Manziel. I'm not sure how that reconciles with the ideas of his bosses. Bradley comes from Seattle, which has the mobile Russell Wilson. Caldwell comes from Atlanta, which has the considerably less mobile Matt Ryan. My sense is that Bradley and Caldwell probably lean more toward the Wilson end of the spectrum. People think that eliminates Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the case. He's not a runner but he can run if needed. If he's around, I'd expect them to take him. If not, then I would still expect them to go quarterback. It's their most glaring need.
You mentioned Munchak's job status. What's your take on whether he will be back next season -- and should he be?
Kuharsky: He’s shepherded improvement, but his team lacks an ability to finish. He’s 0-4 in the worst division in football, 1-9 in the past two years. His teams have lost to the previously winless Jags in 2013 and the previously winless Colts in 2011. He’s 4-18 against teams with winning records when the Titans played them and 2-19 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. To me, three years is a sufficient sample size to know what you’ve got and those numbers are the most telling thing on his resume. Keep him and they deal with all the limitations connected to a lame duck coach. I don’t know what Tommy Smith, the head of the new ownership, will do. But the fan base overwhelmingly wants change, if that’s worth anything. People still pay for tickets because they’ve got investments in personal seat licenses they do not want to throw away. But a lot of people are staying home on Sundays now.
Cecil Shorts is done and Maurice Jones-Drew is uncertain. How can the Jaguars threaten on offense without their two best weapons?
DiRocco: They were able to put up 20 points and post their second-highest yardage total of the season, including a season-high 159 rushing, in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Running back Jordan Todman stepped up big time and ran for 109 yards (Jones-Drew cracked 100 only once in the first 13 games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis was more involved in the passing game than in previous weeks (four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown). But I'm not sure that is sustainable. Teams will certainly concentrate on stopping Lewis and make quarterback Chad Henne move the ball with three receivers who have a combined 75 career catches. Todman doesn't scare anyone, either. The Jaguars will have to be creative on offense (they've run gadget plays the past three weeks) and capitalize on every opportunity they get.
MVP: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt
No one in the division has played with the week-to-week impact and dominance of Watt. If there is one guy in the division that has to be game-planned around more than anyone else, at this point it’s Watt. (From Sept. 27: Hot Watt looking to break mold of 3-4 ends.)
Offensive MVP: Colts receiver Reggie Wayne
It’s an incredible resurgence for the 33-year old, who’s the go-to guy for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Wayne’s got one of the receiver slots on virtually every midseason All-Pro Team I’ve seen. (From Nov. 1: Watching Reggie Wayne work.)
Rookie MVP: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck
Trent Dilfer recently put it best: There is no metric for command, and Luck’s got hard-to-fathom command of the position, the team and the game given than he’s in his first season. (From Oct. 25: A progress report on Andrew Luck (it's good))
Most improved: Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson
I was among those who regarded him as the defensive weak-link for the Texans coming into the season. But with mentoring from Johnathan Joseph, Jackson’s really made strides and has been very solid.
Top coach: Chuck Pagano/ Bruce Arians
With apologies to Gary Kubiak, who’s done good work, the framework Pagano set up and that Arians has been working off of has a team that lacks depth and has some weak spots in position for a playoff berth.
Top coordinator: Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips
The Texans defense has pretty much picked up where it left off last season. The front can be swarming and even minus the injured Brian Cushing they don't have a weakness offenses have been able to exploit.
Biggest disappointment: The Jaguars defense
Being without outside linebacker Daryl Smith (groin) all season has hurt. But when the rest of the group is healthy, it should be a tone-setting group that makes things far easier for the offense. It has not been.
Biggest mystery: Titans running back Chris Johnson
He was pretty much AWOL for four of the first five games of the season. In the other five, he’s run for at least 91 yards. A huge guarantee locks in for him in March, so he’s got financial incentive to be productive.
Hottest seat: Jaguars general manager Gene Smith
He’s been in charge since 2009 and his team simply doesn’t have enough quality players to compete and win with any consistency.
Honorable mentions Titans coordinators Jerry Gray and Chris Palmer
Game of the year: Colts 30, Green Bay 27 on Oct. 7.
In their first game after learning Pagano had leukemia, the Colts rallied from 21-3 halftime deficit to win the game and honor their coach.
Honorable mentions: Titans 44, Lions 41 (OT) on Sept. 23; Colts 19, Titans 13 (OT) on Oct. 28.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
I'm working on division midseason awards and thought, in the spirit of Election Day, I'd offer AFC South fans a chance to fill out a ballot.
If you chime in with comments below, I will factor your input into the blog entry that is coming Wednesday.
Hit any of these categories in the comments section, and feel free to suggest a quirky category or two of your own:
Top Offensive Player
Top Defensive Player
Needs to Sit
Needs to Play
All Points Bulletin Award
(I lifted that last one from NFC North blogger extraordinaire Kevin Seifert.)