<
>

Indy's decline is making the AFC South the worst division ever

AP Photo/R Brent Smith

INDIANAPOLIS -- Unless the Indianapolis Colts can pick things up, the AFC South will end up being the worst division in NFL history.

After Sunday's 27-21 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Colts dropped to 3-4, a disappointment, but still enough to lead the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans by one game. According to Elias research, it's the first time since the 1970 merger a team has led a division after seven weeks with a losing record. But that's just the start of the story.

Andrew Luck isn't looking like Andrew Luck -- at least not the version we saw in 2014. He's turning the ball over too often and looks tentative on throws. The Texans have become the least competitive first-half team in football and gave up 44 points to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The Tennessee Titans have lost 15 of their past 16 games, and their prize quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is sidelined with an MCL sprain. The Jaguars had a nice win over Buffalo on Sunday, but they haven't won more than five games in a season since 2010, and the defense has played poorly.

Here's the bottom line (and I do mean bottom): The AFC South is 4-15 (1-3 Sunday) in nondivisional games, a winning percentage of 21. The worst nondivision record was the 2008 NFC West, which went 10-30, a horrible 25 percent. The second-worst was last season's NFC South at 10-29-1 (26.3 percent), and the NFC South is feasting on the AFC South this season with a 6-2 mark. It's quite possible for the AFC South to go 8-32 against the rest of the league, which would be the worst ever.

The surprise is the Colts are a big part of the equation, and on Sunday they looked like their divisional peers. They entered the game 0-3 in nondivision games but had a clear opportunity to put distance between themselves and the rest of the division. The game was at home. The Saints entered at 2-4. If the Colts can't win a home game against a 2-4 team that struggles on the road, how many nondivision games can they expect to win? The Saints jumped the Colts for a 27-0 lead fewer than four minutes into the third quarter.

"The first half was unacceptable," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "It's hard enough to win football games when you don't shoot yourself in the foot. You aren't going to win many football games in the National Football League when you turn the ball over and you have penalties and you have miscues and you have the errors that happened on special teams. You had the inability at times to stop the run and we couldn't run it."

After the game, there was chatter among local reporters wondering if Pagano, who is in the last year of his contract, was going to get fired as early as Monday. They know owner Jim Irsay was furious. Irsay spent a good portion of time after the game with general manager Ryan Grigson talking about what went wrong.

What it won't get is any easier.

The Colts go to Carolina on Nov. 2 for a Monday Night Football game, and then host the Denver Broncos on Nov. 8. If they lose to those unbeaten teams, they will be 3-6 and 0-6 outside the division. After the Broncos game, the Colts have a bye, and bye weeks for struggling teams can lead to coaching changes. Ask Joe Philbin, the former Dolphins coach who was fired after returning from a bad loss in London.

Pagano has won three consecutive AFC South titles with 11-5 records, and with a 3-0 record in the division and two of the three remaining divisional games at home, the Colts are the odds-on favorite to win the AFC South for the fourth straight time. Yet it's starting to look as if the Colts will have to do it with a 7-9 or 8-8 record because this will clearly be their worst nondivision record.

There is a good chance the Colts will go 2-8 in nondivision games. Three of their last four games are in the division, but it's not out of the question for the Colts to go into December with a 4-8 record.

"We're not playing good football for 60 minutes," wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "You can't dig a hole for yourself like that, and it's hard to come back. We had a chance at the end, but it's just hard when you dig a hole for yourself like that. We're not playing football like we know how to play."

The last nine games of the season will also be about Luck's ability to bounce back. In his first three years, Luck was 16-2 within the division and 17-13 outside it. Now, you wonder if Luck can pull the Colts out of this hole. Whether it's his shoulder injury or the constant pounding because of a subpar offensive line, Luck just looks shaky. His completion percentage has dropped from 61.7 to 56.2, and downfield shots have been an issue -- he has thrown nine interceptions on throws of 10 yards or longer.

For what it's worth, his teammates aren't worried.

"I think Andrew is fine," said Johnson, who has seen a lifetime's worth of bad QB play from his days in Houston. "There are just times we have breakdowns as an offense. Maybe it's him not having enough time or us [the receivers] not making plays on the outside. I think it's just a combination of things. I don't think it's just one person."

An 8-32 or 9-31 division will likely play a big role in playoff races in both conferences. The NFC South plays the AFC South and the NFC East, which could give Atlanta and Carolina the chance to win 11 to 13 games. And despite a 1-4 start, those Saints have a chance to get to eight or nine wins because they have three more games against the AFC South.

Play this division enough, and anything seems possible.

Inside the Huddle

• Despite bringing his Bills back from a 24-point deficit in a 34-31 loss to Jacksonville, quarterback EJ Manuel all but sealed his fate with the team. The Bills will let Tyrod Taylor start after the bye and probably look for a new backup next year. Manuel was 3-for-12 on third downs. According to ESPN Stats & Info research, his 10.7 QBR on third and fourth downs since the beginning of 2014 is the second-lowest, behind only Sam Bradford of the Eagles.

• The two teams to watch in the NFC because of easy schedules the next few weeks are the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams. The Vikings finished the sweep of the 1-6 Detroit Lions with a 28-19 victory Sunday. They have Chicago, St. Louis and Oakland coming up. The Rams, who beat the Cleveland Browns 24-6, have San Francisco, Minnesota, Chicago and Baltimore next. As long as he doesn't get sick, Adrian Peterson can help carry the Vikings' offense, while Todd Gurley, who has 433 yards in his past three games, can do the same for St. Louis.

Ryan Tannehill picked the right time to have a near-perfect game. He completed 18 of 19 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the 44-26 victory over Houston. The Dolphins now go on a three-game road trip, but Tannehill's career numbers don't drop too much on the road. He has a 62.8 completion percentage in road games, which is a little better than his rate at home. And the Dolphins have scored at virtually the same rate on the road and at home with Tannehill starting.

• The league has to hope the injuries to New York Jets center Nick Mangold (neck) and Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jason Peters (lower back) aren't serious. Seventeen starting offensive linemen are currently on some kind of an injury list, whether it's injured reserve or physically unable to perform. Six starting centers head those lists. There were 26 starting offensive linemen who went on the injured list in all of last season.

• To get pressure on quarterbacks, Falcons coach Dan Quinn has resorted to the blitz, which is against his normal philosophy. As defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, Quinn relied on his four-man rush. In a 10-7 win against Tennessee, Quinn blitzed Zach Mettenberger 11 of 36 times and limited him to 5-of-10 completions for 47 yards and two interceptions. The Falcons have only eight sacks in seven games.

• By coming back from a 24-point deficit to beat Tampa Bay 31-30, Kirk Cousins secured his job as the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback, probably for the rest of the season. Cousins has been mistake-prone, but yesterday was a great win for Washington. For the Bucs, coach Lovie Smith was right: That loss could leave a scar.

• New England's 30-23 win over the Jets can be credited to pure guts from Tom Brady. Left tackle Nate Solder is on injured reserve. His replacement, Marcus Cannon, was out with a toe injury, and guard Shaq Mason was injured. Nevertheless, Brady threw 54 passes and gained 355 yards. Even more impressive is completing 15 of 21 passes out of an empty backfield in which only five guys were blocking. Yes, the line played better than I expected, but Brady was in the position to get the ball out fast or get drilled, and he got the win.

• It's no surprise Matt Cassel didn't change the equation for the Cowboys in a 27-20 loss to the New York Giants. Minus Tony Romo, the Cowboys were going to have a tough time winning. People forget how good Romo was last season in leading the NFL in QBR. They are now 0-4 without him, with games coming up against Seattle, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. If the Cowboys can win two of those games and get Romo back with a 4-6 record, they have a chance to challenge for the NFC East title. It would be tough at 3-7.

• Oakland's 37-29 win over San Diego was a stunner. Wide receiver Amari Cooper of the Raiders and the Rams' Gurley are emerging as rookie of the year candidates. Cooper was unstoppable with six catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.