1. The health of the Jacksonville Jaguars: They’ve placed 27 guys on injured reserve this season, more than half a roster of names. Not all of them would have made a difference. But five starters on defense are gone, including three of the four starters in the secondary. It’s a crazy run of bad luck. The offense was going to hold the franchise back this season. But the rebuild of the defense was quite good, and if they had something close to their full stable they’d be awfully good on that side of the ball. A little context: The Colts were battered last season and we thought their injury count was extraordinary. They put 17 players on IR.
2. The playoff hopes of the Tennessee Titans: The loss to New Orleans stung because the Titans could have won the game at the end. Although Jake Locker played well, he couldn’t punch it in given multiple chances from close range. Considering how good Matt Hasselbeck has been in the red zone, people are missing the boat on how much the team missed him. Now, Tennessee needs three wins in a row and some help to get the last wild-card berth. It’s not impossible, but winning three division games in a row is a giant challenge.
3. Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis left tackle: The Colts did their part to help Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs’ bid for defensive player of the year, allowing him three sacks, two tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles in the Ravens' 24-10 win in Baltimore. The outside linebacker is a handful for even the best blockers, and he was a giant mismatch for Castonzo, a rookie. How about giving him more help? Quarterback Dan Orlovsky deserves mention here, too. He’s got to have some sense of when trouble is coming and protect the ball. He fumbled on all three of Suggs’ sacks, and was super-lucky that his team recovered all three loose balls.
1. The good vibe in Houston: The city’s been absolutely starving for this, and the assurance of the first NFL playoff appearance for Houston’s NFL entry since 1993 was greeted with much fanfare. I watched highlights of the impromptu rally that greeted the team upon its return from Cincinnati, and it was easy to get caught up in the emotions. Players who addressed the crowd hit just the right tone between enjoying the moment and marking it as the start of something, not the conclusion of anything. A bye and home-field advantage are still in play and give the Texans plenty of reasons to keep things going.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars running back: He’s a singular weapon for the Jaguars, who rode him in a big way in their blowout win over Tampa Bay. He scored twice on the ground and twice on pass receptions while gaining 136 yards on 33 touches. The team went into the season talking about not relying on him too much, but he’s taken a league-high 277 handoffs to get to the NFL lead with 1,222 rushing yards. He’s scored seven rushing touchdowns, and no other Jaguar has found the end zone on the ground. He’s got 35 catches for 338 yards and three more scores. For those who’ve feared he’d wear down late in the season, he’s showing no signs of drop-off.
3. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans quarterback: He didn’t get the Titans in the end zone in several chances at the end and he missed on too many passes. Still, against a tough defense, the Titans' rookie quarterback played well when called on to relieve the injured Hasselbeck. His rushing touchdown was especially impressive, as he went airborne but managed to reach the ball inside the pylon. That’s the highlight/symbolic play so far to illustrate what he can do and why they are so excited about him. That said, the team needs a healthy Hasselbeck to maximize the playoff chance this season.