AFC South: Andre Johnson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars had the least-talented roster in the NFL in 2013.

Based on what head coach Gus Bradley was able to do in the second half of the season and the success of general manager David Caldwell's first draft, there is a lot of optimism that the Jaguars will make progress in 2014. It won't be a turnaround similar to what the Kansas City Chiefs made from 2012 to 2013, but the Jaguars should be significantly better next season.

They aren't the only team in that situation, though. During the NFL Nation season wrap-ups, eight bloggers among the 20 who cover non-playoff teams said the teams they cover are trending up heading into the offseason: Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Jacksonville, Houston, Tennessee, St. Louis and the New York Jets.

Some, like the Cardinals and Steelers, were close to making the playoffs in 2013. Others, such as the Texans, Jaguars and Rams, didn't even come close. But all of those teams should take steps forward in 2014.

The eight bloggers got together, thanks to Bills reporter Mike Rodak, and ranked those eight teams based on their chances of making the playoffs next season. Not surprisingly, the Jaguars finished last. Yes, behind a Texans team that is riding a 14-game losing streak.

Houston had the league's worst record in 2013, but the Texans do have some talent on the roster -- led by J.J. Watt, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson -- and need only a piece or two to become a playoff team again. Quarterback is the top priority, of course, but a change in leadership from Gary Kubiak to Bill O'Brien also could provide the boost the Texans need to make them a factor in the AFC South again.

The Jaguars went 4-4 in the second half of the season (two victories came against Houston) but they have so many needs and holes to fill that it'll be another season before they can realistically make a playoff run. Caldwell and Bradley have to find a quarterback, a pass-rusher, a running back and outside linebackers. They have to beef up the interior of the offensive line and add quality depth at defensive tackle.

It wouldn't hurt to add a big, physical receiver to the roster, either.

I have a feeling that if players could choose their own teammate, every one of the Houston Texans would have chosen Andre Johnson as the player they'd most like to see in the Super Bowl.

He's the longest-tenured Texans player, having been with the franchise since its second year, and has shared with his teammates the trials that have come with that.

But when we surveyed 320 players from around the league, they were told to choose one active non-teammate who has never played in the Super Bowl. Johnson still received 14 votes, ranking him fifth behind Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Falcons retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who received votes from 15 players who will be happy to see him there this season.

Peterson (59 votes) and Gonzalez (56) were close at the top.

You get one guess on the other Texans player to get votes.

Yup, four players chose defensive end J.J. Watt.

Andre Johnson skipping Pro Bowl

January, 17, 2014
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This year Andre Johnson was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl.

He won't be going.

The Philadelphia Eagles announced to reporters that receiver DeSean Jackson will replace Johnson in Hawaii this year.

The reason for Johnson passing isn't quite clear, but he's been to several. He missed the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season, but went last year along with eight of his teammates.

Johnson didn't get any All-Pro votes, but received the Pro Bowl selection after his fourth season with at least 1,400 yards (1,407 this year) and his seventh season with at least 1,000 yards.

The Eagles and Texans both gained a Pro Bowler because of a defection by the other. When Eagles offensive tackle Jason Peters bowed out, Texans left tackle Duane Brown replaced him.

All-AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

January, 2, 2014
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Indianapolis Colts didn’t have a problem against teams in the AFC South this season. They went a perfect 6-0, and four of those victories were by eight points or more.

You wouldn’t have known that the Colts won the division just by looking at ESPN.com's All-AFC South team, because they had only six players on it. The Houston Texans had the most players named to the team with eight. The Texans opened the season with the talent to possibly make the Super Bowl, but their season turned into a disaster, as they lost their final 14 games.

Tennessee Titans receiver Kendall Wright edged out Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton to be the second receiver named to the team behind Houston’s Andre Johnson. Wright had more catches than Hilton, but the Colts receiver had more yards -- barely -- and more touchdowns than Wright.

An argument could be made that the Colts deserve more than six players on the team, but they’ll gladly take their current situation -- the playoffs -- over Houston’s.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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Four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 37-13 loss to the Denver Broncos:

Johnson's day: Andre Johnson became only the second player in NFL history to have five seasons with at least 100 catches (matching Broncos receiver Wes Welker). He came into Sunday's game with 99 catches. Because of a combination of missteps by both he and quarterback Matt Schaub, Johnson caught only four passes on his 13 targets. Last week, Johnson had just four catches on 10 targets. One of his targets against the Broncos was a play that should have ended in a touchdown. Schaub threw what appeared to be a perfectly placed pass that Johnson dropped. He said it was a play he should have made, but added that the ball came quickly and the sun in his eyes (through the rare open roof) didn't make it easier. Johnson said Schaub told him after the play that he had thrown it a little bit early. What took the edge off for both of them was that Schaub threw a touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin right after that. "Keshawn bailed me out," Johnson said.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Andre Johnson
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderAndre Johnson was targeted 13 times, but had just 4 catches for 63 yards.
Bullock continues redemptive streak: Neither the Texans nor kicker Randy Bullock gave up on the belief that he would eventually figure things out after a rough start to the season. On Sunday, Bullock made two, giving him 11 straight made field goals -- the sixth-longest such streak in franchise history.

Four-man front designed to force the pass: Sometimes the talk of the Texans' coaching search gets bogged down in the details of whether the next coach will change the defense. I don't think a schematic change would be all that difficult for the Texans as interim head coach/defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' defense is much more of a hybrid than a pure 3-4. Sunday's game was a good example of that. "We played a bigger group against them because we didn't want them to run the football, which they didn't really run the football," Phillips said. "We wanted to force them to throw the ball and obviously they did that. You really have to get them into third downs. I thought we played really well on third down." The Broncos only converted 2 of 11 third downs. And before you scoff at the idea of forcing the Broncos to throw, remember that it worked for a lot of the game. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's brilliant fourth quarter had the help of some very favorable field position.

Frustrating, disappointing, forgettable: Frustrating might be the most-used word in the Texans' locker room this season. Defensive end J.J. Watt used it Sunday. "It’s been frustrating. It has been disappointing to say the least and it has been very forgettable. It is something that we never want to happen again, that is for sure."

What Texans players play for now

December, 17, 2013
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The Houston Texans can't make the 2013 NFL playoffs and they can't save their head coach's job. And after last week's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, it's less likely they can help their defensive coordinator move from interim head coach to regular head coach, despite his winning record as a head coach.

I asked several players Sunday evening: What do you play for now?

WR Andre Johnson, 11th season: "I'm just trying to win. Trying to end this streak. That's pretty much it. I only play the game for one reason and that's to win and hopefully one day win the Super Bowl. So other than that, I don't really set any personal goals or anything like that."

RB Ben Tate, 4th season: "I'm playing to get a W. I play because I love the game, I love doing this."

TE Ryan Griffin, 1st season: "Anytime you play, it's on film. So at this point we're playing for pride right now. You've got to put the right stuff on film. Everybody sees that, everybody in the NFL. It doesn't matter what your record is it is each play. So that's what we're playing for."

CB Johnathan Joseph, 8th season: "My pride. That's what I play for each and every week. My pride overrides everything else because I just want to go out there and play good, winning football from the beginning of the whistle to the end of the whistle. So I think it's about pride. Going out there and putting winning football on tape."

LG Wade Smith, 11th season: "I play for the fact that I love playing football. I want to win. I know if I play well, it's contributing to helping us get a win. If the offensive line plays well, then it's contributing to us getting a win. And we just go from there."

RT Derek Newton, 3rd season: "For my team. Myself. We're trying to get Ws each week."

OLB Brooks Reed, 3rd season: "Play for? Pride. Self respect."

ILB Darryl Sharpton, 4th season: "I play for my teammates. I play for my coaches. I play for Bryan Braman, Joe Mays, all the guys in the linebacker room. Reggie Herring, all my coaches. I mean, that's what you play for. It's your job. It's an unbelievable opportunity that people would kill for no matter what situation. I don't take it for granted. I've been through a lot of ups and downs and having this opportunity to play professional football in a great city like Houston, I'm going to take full advantage of my opportunity and give it my all."

Colts' defense has best game in 10 weeks

December, 15, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts needed something out of their defense. The sporadic play over the past seven weeks wasn’t going to cut it, especially with the playoffs only three weeks away.

It turns out a three-and-out possession on their first defensive series was a sign of things to come for the Colts against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Butler
The Colts held the Texans to 239 yards, sacked quarterback Case Keenum four times, and picked him off twice in their best defensive performance in more than two months in their 25-3 victory.

“We take it upon ourselves as a defense as a whole, because we feed off the front four and they feed off of us covering guys on the back end,” Colts defensive back Darius Butler said. “We had to all come together. Guys executed the calls today, and made plays when we had to.”

The 239 yards given up is the fewest the Colts have allowed since Jacksonville gained 205 yards against them on Sept. 29.

That’s a drastic change defensively for the Colts when you consider that they had given up an average of 31 points and 401 yards per game in the seven games prior to Sunday.

“Yeah, we played good football today,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “Kept mental mistakes to a minimum, and just able to get after it good and fast start and maintain it throughout the game.”

The Colts wanted to get back on track defensively for the stretch run of the season, but they also remember what the Texans did to them in the first half of their first meeting in Houston on Nov. 3.

Keenum looked like he was going to be the Texans’ quarterback of the future, and receiver Andre Johnson was going to break all kinds of records in the first half. Keenum threw for 208 yards, and Johnson had seven catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of the game.

It was the complete opposite Sunday.

Butler had both of the interceptions thrown by Keenum, including one where he baited the quarterback into attempting a pass to Johnson. Keenum finished the game 18-of-34 for 168 yards. Johnson had four catches for only 18 yards.

The Colts didn’t allow the Texans into the red zone all game.

“They did a great job,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “They practiced really well. They were bound and determined to make amends for what Andre did to us in the first ballgame down there, specifically in the first half. I’m really proud of the guys in the back end. They stepped up. D-Buts getting two interceptions was huge.”

Double Coverage: Texans at Colts

December, 12, 2013
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J.J. Watt and Andrew LuckGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt's Texans aren't playoff-bound like Andrew Luck's Colts, but Sunday's hosts haven't had it easy.
INDIANAPOLIS -- This was supposed to be a game that had AFC South division title implications between a Super Bowl contender and a playoff team, one that could have even been flexed on the schedule.

At least that's the way it was envisioned when the season started.

Instead, it'll be a battle of two teams dealing with a number of issues when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts haven't beaten a team with a winning record since Oct. 20 and haven't had consistency on offense, defense or special teams in weeks. The Texans ... well, they've been a disaster this season. They are on an 11-game losing streak, benched their starting quarterback and fired their head coach.

ESPN.com's Colts reporter Mike Wells and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli weigh in on the two struggling teams.

Wells: Tania, obviously the big news -- really the only news -- to come out of Houston in the past week was the firing of coach Gary Kubiak. Wade Phillips takes over as the interim coach. Teams tend to rally around interim coaches or just shut them out. What do you think the Texans will do with Phillips?

Ganguli: I don't think they'll shut him out, but wanting to succeed for the coach was never a problem in Houston. They wanted to win the last Colts game for their head coach, who left at halftime in an ambulance. They wanted to win the following week in Arizona for their coach, who watched from home as he recovered from his transient ischemic attack. It's not a matter of wanting the win -- the process has gotten lost. Two weeks ago, the Texans made so much progress in fixing their issues and then last week they went to Jacksonville and completely lost their discipline, committing a franchise-record 14 penalties for 177 yards.

The Colts are now back on top of the AFC South. What was the mood like for the team upon clinching the division and a playoff spot?

Wells: It was a bittersweet feeling for them because they needed help from their good buddy Peyton Manning in Denver to win their first division title in three years. The Colts wanted to go into Cincinnati and win it by themselves so that they would be able to avoid getting it in the side or backdoor. That obviously didn't happen. But a division title is a division title no matter how you get it. That's how the Colts should look at it, especially since they were 2-14 just two years ago and many people thought the Texans wouldn't have a problem winning the division for the third straight season.

I'll be the first to say I picked the Texans to win the division this season. I'm sure there are probably a lot of reasons why they've been a major bust. But does one reason stand out more than others?

Ganguli: If I had to choose one, I would say the quarterback situation has been the biggest reason. It was completely out of the blue. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I don't think Matt Schaub played poorly most of the time, it's just that pick-6's are such dramatic momentum swingers. Really, though, it's been a combination of a lot of things. If you look at their stats, you'd expect the team to have a much better record. After Schaub, they went through Case Keenum's learning process, which is ongoing. Kicker Randy Bullock had a rough start, which impacted the team's record. He has improved lately, but by then the Texans developed other problems, like the loss of four important players to injury: inside linebacker Brian Cushing, safety Danieal Manning, running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels has a chance of returning this week. And of course, I mentioned the meltdown of discipline that led to what happened last Thursday in Jacksonville. That was a problem early in the season, but unusual for the Texans lately. They had four penalties in the previous two games combined.

I expected the Colts to be better than they are, too. Do you think this team has taken a step forward or backward from last season?

Wells: I thought the Colts had more talent this season but they wouldn't be able to duplicate their 11-5 record from last year. I was right about their record but wrong about their talent. Season-ending injuries forced the Colts to take a step back in the talent department. They're known for using the phrase "Next Man Up" when dealing with injuries. There really isn't a Next Man Up when it comes to replacing future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne, guard Donald Thomas and tight end Dwayne Allen. The Colts thought acquiring running back Trent Richardson would soften the blow of losing Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. That hasn't been the case. Richardson's struggles since coming to Indianapolis have been well documented. So injuries and players not living up to expectations are the main reasons why the Colts have taken a step back

We talked about the benching of Schaub prior to the first meeting between the two teams in early November. Receiver Andre Johnson made Keenum look pretty good in the first half of that game. Has Keenum shown enough to prove he's worthy of being the team's quarterback for years to come?

Ganguli: He's had good moments and bad ones. I think the bad moments are fixable, but whether he'll be able to fix them remains to be seen. The end of this season is an audition for him just as much as it is for Phillips. He has to show he's learning how to read defenses and make better decisions. There are times when Keenum hangs on to the ball too long because his internal clock isn't quite where it needs to be yet. He is learning that sometimes it's better to take the checkdown. He's learning that turning his back on the field when a rush comes at him reduces his options. If he stops growing where he is now, he'll have a career as a serviceable backup. If he continues to improve, he has the chance to be a starter.

To wrap up, let's talk about the quarterback up there, which I know we have before. How would you assess the season Andrew Luck has had?

Wells: Two words: A struggle. But it's not Luck's fault. The offensive line has been inconsistent all season. The running game has been more poor than good. The biggest reason behind it, though, is because of the loss of Wayne. Wayne was Luck's security blanket and nobody has stepped up to help him out. Luck is good, but you can't forget that he's only in his second season and is still learning. Rookie Da'Rick Rogers had a breakout game against Cincinnati (107 yards) last weekend and believes he can be Luck's third-down go-to guy.

Texans' 'nightmare' season comes to Indy

December, 12, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts have their fair share of issues that need to be worked out over the final three weeks of the season. But they know they’ll have at least one playoff game.

The same can’t be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans began the season as Super Bowl contenders in the AFC with Denver and New England. They won their first two games. Then things fell apart. They've lost 11 straight games, benched their starting quarterback and last week fired their head coach.

"It's obviously a nightmare," Texans interim coach Wade Phillips told Indianapolis reporters during his Wednesday conference call. "It's been so many games and so close, and just not being able to make the one or two plays. It's not like we're getting beat by 20 points every game, so it's been very frustrating."

The losing streak and frustration are there, but the Texans indeed aren't getting blown out on a weekly basis. Each of their last seven losses has been by seven points or less.

"It's been tough," veteran receiver Andre Johnson said. "At the same time, we just have to keep a positive attitude and just try to keep moving forward. We put ourselves in this situation."

You would think playing at home against a vulnerable team, one that has lost 11 straight games, would favor the Colts.

That’s not the case, though. Go back to the first meeting between the teams, in Houston in early November, if you need proof. Johnson had 190 yards receiving in the first half and the Texans led 21-3 at halftime before quarterback Andrew Luck threw three touchdown passes to T.Y. Hilton in a come-from-behind 27-24 victory.

“Wade’s been in this position before,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Throw the records out. You look at their last six ballgames that they’ve played, they’ve lost those six ballgames by a combined point total of 28 points. And so we’re preparing as if it’s whoever.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Cornerback Greg Toler's groin injury was originally expected to keep him out the Indianapolis Colts' lineup 2-4 weeks.

Four weeks came and went. So did Week 5. The same can be said for Weeks 6 and 7.

It’s gotten to the point now where you wonder if he’ll be back to help the defense this season.

“I want to be back out there helping my teammates,” Toler said. “Some dudes can play with their bodies being off a little. I can’t. The training staff told me they want me to be 100 percent before I go back out there.”

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace and Greg Toler
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe groin injury suffered by cornerback Greg Toler (right), has weakened the Colts' secondary.
Where is Toler at health-wise?

“I’d say I’m about 90-95 percent,” he said. “I need a great full week of practice of not having to be limited at all. They want to know that if a guy gets by me, I can turn it on and catch him. I respect that. This is one of those situations where I have to be completely healed first.”

The time it has taken Toler to try to overcome his groin injury, which happened in the third quarter of the Oct. 20 game against Denver, is somewhat alarming.

He said there is a backstory behind it. Toler, who also had injury problems during his four seasons with Arizona, said he made the mistake of trying to play through injuries when he was younger.

He doesn’t want to make the same mistake again.

Toler suffered a setback with his groin while working out about three weeks ago. He practiced on a limited basis last week but knew the odds of playing against the Cincinnati Bengals were slim, because he faced the risk of aggravating his groin with the game was played outdoors in the cold.

“I’m ready and confident that I’ll be back out there with the guys,” Toler said. “They want me to be at my best. I don’t want to hurt the team. The cold doesn’t play in your favor, because it doesn’t allow your body warm up the way you want to."

Toler's absensce isn't the only reason behind the recent demise, but the secondary has struggled since he was injured. Receivers like Houston’s Andre Johnson (229 yards), St. Louis' Tavon Austin (138 yards) and Arizona’s Michael Floyd (104 yards) have had big games against the Colts.

“When you’ve got a player of his caliber that can play, that’s why we signed him, and for him not to be in the lineup does hurt a little bit, don’t get me wrong,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky recently said. “If something happens to other players that are Pro Bowl type players, you’re going to have a letdown. But we pick it up and next guy in line, we go out there and we roll.”
A review of four hot issues from the Jacksonville Jaguars' 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans:

Big night for MoJo: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew surpassed 100 yards for the first time since Week 3 of the 2012 season. He ran for 103 yards despite not playing the final 11 minutes of the game because of a right hamstring strain. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones-Drew ran for a 98 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per carry between the tackles. Jones-Drew, who hurt his hamstring on a 15-yard reception, said his injury was minor and he expects to play in the Jaguars' next game against Buffalo on Dec. 15.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew, D.J. Swearinger, Darryl Sharpton
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesMaurice Jones-Drew rushed 14 times for 103 yards on Thursday.
More offensive trickery: For the second week in a row, a non-quarterback threw a touchdown pass. This time it was receiver Ace Sanders, who took a lateral from quarterback Chad Henne, rolled to his right, and lofted a pass to running back Jordan Todman for a 21-yard score. While Sanders was talking about the play in the locker room, teammate Cecil Shorts was yelling "Michael Vick" at him from his nearby locker. That was just one instance of ribbing Sanders got from his teammates. "They said, ‘What took you so long to throw it?'" Sanders said. "I said, ‘Hey, we scored.'"

Nimble Henne: Henne actually looked more like Vick than Sanders. OK, that's exaggerating, but Henne did do a nice job of keeping plays alive with his feet and scrambling for positive yardage. He ran four times for a season-high 33 yards, including a 14-yard run. "They played a lot of man coverage and two-man and gave me some lanes up front with the pass rush, so I just took off instead of trying to force the ball downfield when it was covered," said Henne, who completed 12 of 27 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns. "I just tried to get as much as I could get."

Shredded secondary: The Jaguars limited Texans receiver Andre Johnson to two catches for 36 yards in the first meeting. Johnson caught 13 passes for 154 yards on Thursday night. He was targeted 21 times. Case Keenum and Matt Schaub combined to throw for 357 yards and two touchdowns and did most of their damage over the middle, which has been a trouble area for the Jaguars all season. Tight end Garrett Graham caught eight passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. The Jaguars have improved against the rush since the bye week but have given up an average of 320.6 yards per game passing in the five games since the break, including 419 yards to Arizona's Carson Palmer and 370 yards to Cleveland's Brandon Weeden. Schaub threw for 198 and Keenum threw for 159.
Andre JohnsonAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackAndre Johnson made history with his 13-catch, 154-yard night. But he couldn't get the Texans a win.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When he caught the pass, that wasn't the end of his work. Andre Johnson kept his eyes open for the right move to make next. He caught the ball from a young, struggling quarterback, scooted several yards to his right, found a hole to run through and gained 6 yards.

It was a play made harder than it should have been, but one Johnson made the best of anyway. In that way, it parallels his career.

On Thursday night, with a 27-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans lost their 11th consecutive game, making it official they would miss the playoffs after winning the AFC South the past two years.

On Thursday night, Johnson became the first receiver in NFL history to have 20 or more games with at least 10 catches and 100 yards. He tied Jerry Rice with 10 games of at least 10 catches and 150 yards. Johnson's 13 catches and 154 yards led the game.

He spoke slowly, softly and deliberately when asked about it, his voice shrugging for him.

"I don’t really think about stuff like that," Johnson said. "To accomplish something that in my book the greatest probably player to ever play the game, to do something he’s done, it’s very humbling. I’m just out here working, trying to do everything I can to help the team."

By halftime, Johnson had only two catches for 14 yards out of the five passes that quarterback Case Keenum threw to him. It was in the second half that things changed for Johnson, even before the spark provided by the return of quarterback Matt Schaub.

"I didn’t do nothing different," Johnson said. "Just had more opportunities and just try to make plays when they came my way."

Keenum targeted Johnson five times in the third quarter before being benched for Schaub. Johnson caught three of those passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 40 percent of Keenum's passes for Johnson were off target.

Schaub, meanwhile, didn't throw any of his passes off target to Johnson. Johnson caught eight of the 11 passes thrown to him by Schaub and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt to Keenum's 5.6 yards per attempt on throws to Johnson.

Johnson was targeted a career-high 21 times Thursday -- the second-most targets for any player in a game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

It makes sense.

"You don’t even have to look at numbers to know that dude’s a special guy," Keenum said. "He cares a lot about this team. He puts us on his shoulders and carries us quite a bit."

Well, he tries. The Texans, who are 2-11 overall, are 1-5 this season in games in which Johnson has had at least 100 yards receiving.

It has been that kind of career for Johnson.

Eight quarterbacks have started at least one game for the Texans since Johnson was drafted. The NFL record he set Thursday speaks to his longevity. That he has done it in the face of so much change at the position getting him the ball speaks to his versatility. He makes the jobs of his quarterbacks easier.

He also has provided a model for young receivers to follow. Those who do, like last year's third-round pick DeVier Posey, who asked for his locker to be put next to Johnson's, benefit from it.

Johnson thought the lean years were behind him, like that 2-14 season in 2005 that led to a No. 1 overall draft pick. But here they are again.

Through it, even amid whispers about his diminishing ability, Johnson has produced.

"He's been a man," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Been a man all year long. Probably has a chance to have his biggest year, I don't know. But he's never changed."

Could be.

Last season, Johnson set a career mark for receiving yards in a season with 1,598. He needs 322 over the next three games to set a new personal best. Next week, he'll face the Indianapolis Colts, against whom he caught nine passes for 229 yards in the teams' first meeting this season.

Last week against the Patriots, Johnson became the second-fastest player in NFL history to catch 900 passes. Only Marvin Harrison did it faster.

None of it means as much to Johnson as a Super Bowl would have this season.

"Just frustration," he said, when asked of his emotions as the Jaguars intercepted a pass to essentially end Thursday's game. "We just want to win. I'm tired of losing."

It has all been much harder than things often are for a player of his caliber.
Keenum-BabinGetty ImagesAre Case Keenum's Texans and Jason Babin's Jaguars on different paths as they near season's end?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The streaks the Jaguars and Texans are on entering tonight's game are ones that would have been hard to believe after the first two weeks of the season.

The Jaguars started 0-2 and played so poorly it looked like they would go down as one of the worst teams in NFL history. The Texans started 2-0, and while those victories were shaky, it looked like they'd be able to right the ship and be one of the top playoff seeds in the AFC.

Three months later, the Jaguars (3-9) are 3-1 since their bye and have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. The Texans (2-10) have dropped a franchise-record 10 consecutive games, including a 13-6 loss to the Jaguars in Houston on Nov. 24.

Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli break down the matchup:

DiRocco: Tania, the Texans felt like they were at rock bottom after losing to the Jaguars on Nov. 24. What's their state of mind heading into Thursday's game?

Ganguli: They were up for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. It was a big one for the Texans after the way the Patriots blew them out twice last season, and that was apparent in the game. The Texans' offense played what might have been its best game with Case Keenum at quarterback, moving the ball from start to finish. There were some positives in that game, but ultimately the loss officially knocked the Texans out of playoff contention. Now they’re playing for pride. They can still avoid the league’s cellar when the season ends. And while there’s a section of fans that cares about the No. 1 overall pick above all else, a win would mean a lot to the team.

The last time the Texans played the Jaguars, the Texans fell to 2-9 and the Jaguars rose to 2-9, causing the Texans to join the Jaguars with the worst record in the NFL. Now the Texans are there alone and the Jaguars have won three out of their past four games. Is that indicative of a turnaround, or of poor play by their opponents?

DiRocco: It's a little of both, but I'd say more that the Jaguars have improved. In the four games since the bye, they're much better against the run (68 yards per game allowed vs. 162), have recorded nine of their 20 sacks, and are plus-3 in turnover ratio. The offensive line has been more consistent and receiver Ace Sanders has begun to emerge as a reliable option. So they are playing much better than the first eight games, which they lost by double digits. But the Jaguars haven't exactly played against the league's elite: The four teams are a combined 18-30 and only one (Arizona) has a winning record. They haven't exactly had to deal with elite QBs, either: Jake Locker/Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Keenum and Brandon Weeden. Still, that shouldn't take away from the fact that the Jaguars are a better team than they were a month ago and have played well enough to win three consecutive games on the road for the first time since 2007.

Ben Tate looked pretty good against the Patriots, and it's probably not a coincidence that he rushes for 102 yards and the Texans nearly win. Is he back to 100 percent and is he the key for the Texans against the Jaguars? He really struggled in the previous meeting.

Ganguli: The running game just didn’t seem to get going in these teams’ last meeting, but Tate rebounded in a big way against the Patriots last weekend. He was asked if it was the best game the offensive line had played, and he said it was definitely one of them. Tate won’t talk about it, but he’s playing for a contract, as this is his final year with the Texans. The Texans’ offense needs him to be productive, and he was on Sunday.

It feels, from the outside, like a completely different season has sprouted for the Jaguars, whose nine losses all have been by double digits. Who has been the MVP of their three recent wins?

DiRocco: It hasn't really been one player, which is indicative of the growth the team has made since the bye week. Against Tennessee it was linebacker Paul Posluszny, who set the tone for the defense on the game’s first offensive snap when he knocked the ball loose from Chris Johnson and recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 19-yard line. Three plays later the Jaguars took a 7-0 lead and never trailed. Against Houston it was running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for a season-high 84 yards and one touchdown and had a season-high 144 total yards. Against Cleveland it was Cecil Shorts, who fought through two drops and dealing with cornerback Joe Haden. Shorts beat Haden on a double-move to catch the game-winning touchdown pass with 40 seconds to play.

The last time the teams met, the Jaguars held Andre Johnson to just two catches. What kind of game do you expect out of him on Thursday?

Ganguli: Johnson’s production in that meeting had as much to do with the shakiness of the quarterback as it did with Johnson. Keenum had a rough day with both his decision-making and accuracy. He was gun-shy, and it hurt him and his receivers. It was no surprise then that a better day for Keenum coincided with a better day for Johnson against the Patriots. He caught eight passes for 121 yards, becoming the second-fastest player in league history to reach 900 career catches. I think you’ll see something closer to that version of Johnson. I don’t see Keenum regressing to what he was 11 days ago.

To wrap up, let’s talk about Jones-Drew some more, a guy who is probably pretty happy with the events of the past week. His college team won its big rivalry game, his current team won again and he got to throw a touchdown pass. That followed a game against Houston with those 144 all-purpose yards. Do you expect similar production from him? And how thrilled was he to get to throw that touchdown pass?

DiRocco: Jones-Drew is riding a pretty good wave, isn’t he? He’s probably the most proud of the touchdown pass, which makes him the first non-quarterback to throw a TD pass in franchise history. It also makes up for his only other career pass attempt, which got intercepted. Jones-Drew’s production has increased the past several weeks because the offensive line has been more consistent and he’s more involved in the passing game. He says catching passes doesn’t result in as much pounding as running through the line of scrimmage, so he’s fresher in the fourth quarter. I expect him to get 20 touches tonight.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 32-28 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

What it means: It has been a while -- nearly three years, in fact -- but the Jaguars finally have a winning streak. Their victory over the Browns marks the first time they have won back-to-back games since Weeks 13-14 of the 2010 season. Jacksonville (3-9) has won three of its four games since the bye week. All of those victories have come on the road, which marks the first time since 2007 the Jaguars have won three consecutive road games.

Stock watch: It had been a pretty miserable homecoming for Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts, who grew up in Cleveland and played collegiately at Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio -- until the Jaguars' final drive. Browns cornerback Joe Haden had pretty much shut Shorts down and Shorts hurt himself with two drops. But he came up big when it mattered most, beating Haden for a 20-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 40 seconds remaining. On the other end of the spectrum, the secondary really struggled. The Jaguars had little trouble with Houston's Andre Johnson last week, holding the All-Pro to just two catches. But they appeared to be playing a man short because Josh Gordon absolutely shredded them for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Gordon's last touchdown was a 95-yard catch and run in which safety Winston Guy went for the interception instead of the tackle and rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz chased Gordon for 20-plus yards and never dove for Gordon's legs.

Ace in the hole: With Shorts a nonfactor for most of the game and Mike Brown playing with a very sore shoulder, the Jaguars needed somebody to step up at receiver, and Ace Sanders did, catching five passes for 38 yards and carrying it once for 4 yards in the first half. Those don't sound like big numbers, but Sanders converted four third downs. He finished with a team-high eight catches for 67 yards, including a 25-yarder on the Jaguars' game-winning touchdown drive.

Turnover binge: The Jaguars went from trailing 14-7 to leading 20-14 in less than a two-minute span at the end of the first half thanks to three turnovers. Two were interceptions, which double the amount the Jaguars' secondary had entering the game. Rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien picked off the first pass of his career, which led to Maurice Jones-Drew's touchdown pass to Marcedes Lewis to tie the game with 1:24 remaining. Gratz intercepted Brandon Weeden's next pass, which led to Josh Scobee's 44-yard field goal and a 17-14 lead with 52 seconds remaining. The Browns tried to drive for a field goal but defensive end Jason Babin knocked the ball from Weeden's hand and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks recovered the ball and returned it to the Cleveland 18-yard line with five seconds remaining. Scobee hit a 36-yard field goal to give the Jaguars a six-point lead.

What's next: The Jaguars will play host to the Houston Texans on Thursday night.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
12:00
PM ET
Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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