AFC South: Ben Utecht
As he prepares to face his former team, Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky is proud of what the Texans have done, says Jeffrey Martin of the Houston Chronicle.
The Texans should lean heavily on the run to get on track in Indianapolis, says John McClain of the Chronicle.
Andre Johnson is out for Thursday night’s game in Indianapolis and Owen Daniels might be too, says McClain.
Shaun Cody put on an excellent production exploring the old age of Jeff Garcia and Jake Delhomme.
Bill Polian says Peyton Manning will fail his physical after the season and then be in line to continue his rehabilitation with the team, writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.
Things are a lot different since the Colts played Houston on opening day, say Phil Richards and Chappell.
Football Outsiders says the Colts have an 89.8 percent chance of drafting first overall.
One-time Colts tight end Ben Utecht is experiencing memory loss, says Erik Brady of USA Today.
In his 12th season and at 34 years old, center Brad Meester wants to return and be part of a Jaguars turnaround, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.
Gene Frenette of the T-U offers a review of Shahid Khan’s podcast with Peter King of Sports Illustrated.
The Jaguars put another defensive back on injured reserve, says Tania Ganguli of the T-U. Does safety Darcel McBath qualify as part of the injury trend when he didn't have a real role and just joined the team last week?
John Oehser of jaguars.com expects the Jaguars to become more of a passing team.
This should have been the Titans' time, writes David Boclair of The City Paper. If Pacman Jones and Vince Young panned out and were in their prime, at worst Tennessee would be right there with Houston in the AFC South.
Matt Hasselbeck practiced and Chris Johnson rested on Tuesday, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Pressuring Blaine Gabbert is one of the keys for the Titans on Saturday, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.
That's bad news for the Bengals.
Since 2000, and not counting games at the end of the season that didn't have meaning because the Colts had sewn up their playoff position, Manning is 11-1 in games after he didn't throw a touchdown pass, with 29 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
The Colts have won five in a row, all by six points or fewer. If they win this one by six or fewer, they'll be the first team ever with such a six-game streak.
Can the Bengals put up that sort of resistance? They've been outscored by an average of 13.2 points a game.
Tidbits: Bengals tight end Ben Utecht spent the last three seasons with the Colts ... Playing for the Titans, Antwan Odom had two sacks in his most recent game against the Colts, both of Jim Sorgi ... Odom (shoulder) and Utecht (foot) will be miss Sunday's game ... Marvin Harrison caught three touchdown passes the last time he played against the Bengals, on Dec. 18, 2006.
Those numbers could bode well for Houston. Rookie running back Steve Slaton has been super-productive in his last three games with 56 carries for 359 yards -- that's 6.4 yards per carry -- to go with three touchdowns. He's 96 yards away from 1,000. He'll be taking handoffs from Matt Schaub, back at quarterback after a four-game layoff recovering from a knee injury.
Houston has won two in a row and looks for its second three-game win streak of the season.
Tidbits: In his only game against the Packers, receiver Andre Johnson caught six passes for 107 yards ... Mario Williams is third in the NFL since 2007 with 25 sacks ... Houston was 3-1 in December last year, while the Packers have won seven of their last eight games in the month.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) at Chicago Bears (6-6), 1 p.m. ET
Since 2000, running back Fred Taylor leads the NFL with 13 100-yard rushing games against the NFC. But he's averaging less than 42 yards a game this year and the way the Bears have played the run, it seems unlikely Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew, who has six rushing TDs in his last five games, will break out. In nine games against teams other than the Vikings or Packers, Chicago has allowed 59.2 ground yards a game and 2.6 yards a carry.
Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard hasn't been on the injury report this week, but he has been banged up. He's fared well in his career against NFC teams with a 7-1 record, and in his last four he has a 96.8 passer rating. However, he's been sacked 11 times in his last three games.
Tidbits: The Jaguars will start Drayton Florence at cornerback in place of Rashean Mathis, who's out for the season with a knee injury, and William James could play as the nickelback ... Chicago leads the NFL with 26 takeaways and Jacksonville has 18 giveaways ... When he last played against Jacksonville, as a Miami Dolphin in 2003, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had three sacks and a forced fumble.
Cleveland Browns (4-8) at Tennessee Titans (11-1), 1 p.m. ET
The Titans clinch the AFC South with a win or a Colts loss to Cincinnati, and clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Jets loss at San Francisco.
At plus-13, Tennessee is the league's best takeaway/giveaway team and Cleveland is tied for fifth at plus-6.
December football for the Titans means forcing the issue with the run. Against Cleveland's 3-4 and nose tackle Shaun Rogers, they will look to build on this: Since 2007, the Titans are 18-3 in games where they record 30 or more rushes. Rookie Chris Johnson will key the attack.
Most rushes of 10 or more yards in 2008:
1) Michael Turner, Atlanta, 33
2) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, 32
3) Clinton Portis, Washington, 29
4) Thomas Jones, NY Jets, 27
5) Chris Johnson, Tennessee, 25
6) Marion Barber, Dallas, 23
Brandon Jacobs, NY Giants, 23
Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo, 23
Derrick Ward, NY Giants, 23
DeAngelo Williams, Carolina, 23
The Browns will start Ken Dorsey at quarterback, their third different starter this season. The only other teams to use three starters this year -- Kansas City, Seattle and Detroit are a combined 4-32.
Tidbits: The Browns have won the last three meetings ... Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck will start his 110th consecutive game. He needs five tackles for his seventh consecutive season over 100 ... Rob Bironas has a league-high 14 field goals from 40 yards or longer this season, but not one attempt from 50 or longer.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
INDIANAPOLIS -- They keep their own here, the indispensible ones.
Since 2004 the Indianapolis Colts have spent over $205 million in guaranteed money on Manning, Harrison, Brandon Stokley, Ryan Diem, Wayne, Raheem Brock, Gary Brackett, Adam Vinatieri, Mathis, Freeney, Sanders and Ryan Lilja.
That's a great core that all started out as Colts, except for Vinatieri, and is all still Colts, except for Stokley.
The players Bill Polian chose not to re-sign have hardly haunted Indianapolis -- they probably parted with Edgerrin James at the right time; Rick DeMulling, Jason David, Cato June and Ben Utecht haven't done a lot to help Detroit, New Orleans, Tampa Bay or Cincinnati, respectively. Plenty of NFL insiders regard them and other ex-Colts as system players who were good in the Colts framework, did well to cash in as free agents, and will never play as well as they did in Indianapolis.
The Colts had draft picks or young players ready to step in as replacements in their unique system.
Three others went south to Nashville. David Thornton, Nick Harper and Jake Scott have jumped to the Titans in the last three years. They are now key ingredients for 6-0 Tennessee, the lone undefeated team in the league and the hosts to the Colts Monday night at LP Field.
While other system guys have faded in their second acts, the Titans feel they hit three home runs -- raiding and weakening the team they've been chasing in the AFC South while strengthening their nucleus.
"They are great performers for us and it's definitely a credit to our scouting department," said Titans Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "Indy is a system-type team, but those guys came in and fit in with what we do really well."
"They've got so much invested in their elite, core guys, they kind of roll the other guys over," said Tennessee GM Mike Reinfeldt, who assumed his post in 2007. "The key is to find in those guys they roll over, which ones are the guys that are really keepers? I think we found three that were."
Thornton is a rangy linebacker who is completely comfortable in coverage and able to rush the passer when asked. Harper was typecast as a Cover 2 corner, but he's shown himself to be capable in man-to-man and has added a lot to the Titans run defense as a willing and reliable tackler. Scott has helped make a brawny line that's allowed only two sacks even more physical.
In 2007, the Colts were ready to let Harper and David move on as they had young risers Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden ready to take over. Harper got a three-year contract for between $9 and 10 million. David was a restricted free agent, but Indy didn't match a four-year, $16.5 million offer sheet.
The Colts haven't missed him the way they have missed Thornton and, because of injuries in the early part of this season, Scott.
Polian said after a Titans-Colts game last season that his team's best linebacker was wearing No. 50 for the other team. Indy might have been able to re-sign him, but accounting issues with the NFL Management Council over signing bonuses for Manning and Harrison under the new CBA in 2006 clogged up Polian's salary cap and the linebacker was gone by the time things were sorted out.
"That's probably the free agent loss that I took hardest," Polian said. "Because I had such high regard for him as a person, as a player and as a leader."
And while the Colts seemingly chose between Lilja and Scott, they certainly could have used Scott to this point, as injuries have thinned their options along the line and Lilja remains on the physically unable to perform list.
He said while a lot of Titans defenses start as zones, they wind up working man-to-man concepts with which he is now completely comfortable. Harper is always quick to note that he was a man corner when he joined the Colts after a year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL.
"Definitely, I am not a product of what the Colts did," he said.
His old teammates will watch him work Sunday, and take note of Thornton and Scott too. They understand why they are where they are, even if they don't like it.
"I'm very happy for all those guys, all good guys, they've done well down there so far," center J
eff Saturday said. "But you knew leaving here, they were the good guys. You knew what you had as players. They showed up here each and every week and performed and played to an outstanding level. They're just doing it for another team.
"They have great leadership qualities, each and every one of them do, and they just took it to the Titans. That's the way the league is now. When teams play you twice a year they can get a good sense of how good you're going to be for them. And I think the Titans made a good move there."