TAMPA, Fla. – It’s the time of year when coaches get fired, which means it’s fair to at least wonder about Lovie Smith.

In his first season as coach of the Buccaneers, Smith is 2-13. That kind of record in recent years has been enough to get Rob Chudzinski and Mike Mularkey fired after only one season.

Could the Bucs sack Smith after only one season?

Every indication I’m getting is that Smith is safe. He has a five-year contract. More importantly, ownership still believes Smith is the right man to turn around the franchise. And the thoughts of ownership are really all that matter.

The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, isn’t all that involved with day-to-day operations on the football side. But the three Glazer sons that run the team (Bryan, Joel and Ed) are more invested than people realize. They’re paying close attention to everything involving the organization and they care deeply about winning.

They can’t be pleased with Smith’s first season, especially after opening the checkbook and being very aggressive in free agency. But the Glazer brothers are smart enough to realize continuity is a must if this team is going to turn the corner. They went through Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano in a very short time.

If they were to fire Smith, the Glazers would be starting over again. Despite the record, Smith’s team has shown some progress, mostly on defense.

It’s the offense that needs work. The Glazers know that and Smith should know that by now. The offense has gone through the season without a coordinator (after Jeff Tedford’s health issues). Tedford has left for the Canadian Football League and Smith needs to bring in a coordinator with some imagination.

Smith also needs to bring in a quarterback, either through the draft or free agency. He needs to overhaul the offensive line and get more out of a talented group of running backs.

Smith doesn’t appear to be on the way out. But he’s going to have to make some changes on the offensive side of the ball to keep the Glazers happy.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- For weeks, the Indianapolis Colts have talked about having a special team capable of making a deep run in the playoffs.

Stop right there. It's silly to even talk like that.

Just because the Colts continue to have the rest of the AFC South looking up at them, it doesn't automatically put them in the same category as the rest of title contenders.

They continue to prove that.

It started with a loss to Denver, then losses to Pittsburgh and New England, and to cap it off, the Dallas Cowboys embarrassed the Colts 42-7 and tied quarterback Andrew Luck's worst loss in his three-year NFL career.

Forget talking about the Colts going on a playoff run. It's time to wonder if they're even capable of winning a playoff game.

"I don't blame people if they question us," Colts safety Mike Adams said. "The numbers don't lie on that part. I've been there before. I know what it takes to make that run."

The easy out for the Colts was they had nothing to play for against the Cowboys because their playoff spot was already locked up.

That's a weak way to approach it because Indianapolis needed the victory to lock up the No. 3 seed. More importantly, Sunday was their final opportunity to get over the mental roadblock of beating a legitimate playoff team.

"No question, this was our opportunity to show we belonged," Adams continued. "It might not have been enough emphasis put on that. I'm not talking about the coaches, but from us as players. It's about knowing and understanding the situation. This is a playoff game. This is what we're going to see -- that and much better. To come out here like that, it's embarrassing. It's not good."

The idea is to get better as the season progresses. It's been the opposite for Indianapolis.

The Colts lost at Denver to open the season, but not in the fashion that you needed to be alarmed. But then Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards against them. New England's Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards against them in a 22-point loss. Dallas' Tony Romo was 18-of-20 for 218 yards and four touchdowns. The Colts gave up at least 42 points in three of those four losses.

It's hard to give yourself a chance when you're called for a taunting penalty and give Dallas a first down on the opening drive of the game. Or you gamble -- and fail -- on a fake punt attempt deep in your end of the field.

Touchdown. Touchdown. A 14-0 deficit before the Colts even ran five offensive plays.

That was just the start of a day filled with miscues. Four dropped passes, eight penalties and just one rushing yard as a team means you're begging for a long afternoon.

The Colts got away with those mistakes against Jacksonville and Washington. But you knew it would catch up to them when they tried to stand toe-to-toe against a legitimate team.

"I guess it is a bit surprising," Luck said. "There were high expectations, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to go out and score every drive. When we don't, it's disappointing. When you go out and play like this, it's a bad feeling. Against a good team like the Cowboys, you aren't going to survive those mistakes."

The Colts will go to Tennessee and likely wrap up the season with a win over the Titans to finish with an 11-5 record for the third consecutive season.

That won't do anything to make you believe the Colts are ready for the playoffs -- not after the way they were humiliated Sunday.

"Disappointed, yeah. Discouraged, no," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "We obviously know we can't play the way we played and expect to do anything down the road, [but] we never get discouraged. It's a tough business ... [Dallas] played at different speed than we played."
videoHOUSTON -- When the Houston Texans' defense took the field on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens it carried the weight of a franchise's playoff hopes with it.

Here was a Texans team on its fourth quarterback of the season, one that only won two games last season, starting a quarterback who was on another team's practice squad just seven days ago.

The Texans needed something special from their defense and every defensive player knew it. To answer the call, for the second week in a row, they played a spectacularly complete game in a 25-13 win against what's normally a very competent offense.

"We knew we had to play big today," safety Kendrick Lewis said. "We knew we had to step up and help our quarterback out. He just got in here this week and we wanted to help him out as much as possible."

Now, even with all the bad luck that's descended upon them, the Texans (8-7) are still in playoff contention.

"I think if you'd told people all week that we were going to sign a guy on Monday and he was going to come in and we were going to win the football game on Sunday, technically a fourth-string quarterback, and everyone kind of thinking the other team was going to win ... it's pretty special," J.J. Watt said. "I think it's a testament to our team. It's a testament to the coaching staff, to the guys we have. It was fun. Days like today are just, they're a blast."

Case Keenum was in a tree when he heard there might be a chance he'd return to the Texans.

He'd hoped a few weeks ago, when the Texans lost Ryan Mallett to a torn pectoral muscle, that he'd get a chance then. It didn't happen, though, so he vanquished that thought. He was in a tree when the hope returned, wielding a bow and arrow about 30 miles outside St. Louis, hunting some white-tailed deer.

"My wife was texting me actually during the Texans game that Ryan [Fitzpatrick] had gotten hurt and that Tom [Savage] was in there and [punter] Shane [Lechler] was warming up," Keenum said. "I got a call from my agent and my heart kind of jumped a little bit."

He came in and successfully ran an offense wisely designed to play to his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. His throws came quickly out of the shotgun formation. His protection was sound. There were five direct snaps to running back Arian Foster. Once, Keenum lofted an ill-fated pass that a Ravens' safety caught as if it was a punt, but that turnover wasn't especially costly.

Keenum completed 20 of 42 passes for 185 yards, one interception and no touchdowns with a passer rating of 50.2. It was all the Texans needed from him on this day -- the Texans' defense made sure of that.

As smart as their offensive plan was, their defensive plan was nothing short of brilliant.

"Coming into the game, I didn’t think our pressure was going to work like it did today," Lewis said. "Our front seven was unbelievable. We were able to get three interceptions. [Flacco] was lobbing it up and we were taking it down. Jack [Kareem Jackson] caught two. A.J. [Bouye] caught one. I dropped one. Everything was working."

It was one part stopping the run, the Texans held Baltimore to a season-low 33 yards rushing, and two parts terrorizing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who came into the game with a total QBR lower than only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Tony Romo.

"We had a lot of pressure on him," linebacker Brooks Reed said. "J.J. coming off the edge. We disguised well, dropped more than probably what he thought. Rushed more than he thought. There were a lot of quarterback hits in this game."

There were 10 quarterback hits, to be precise, four by Watt, two by Jared Crick and two more each by linebackers Brian Cushing and Akeem Dent. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Flacco attempted 16 passes when under duress Sunday, his most such attempts since Week 6 of the 2009 season. It paid off -- Flacco completed only four of those passes.

His feet started dancing, his throws started sailing and the Texans could see him unraveling.

"It was incredible," safety D.J. Swearinger said of the defensive game plan. "We had a certain blitz that they couldn't stop and I thought it was crazy how they couldn't stop it."

That took a toll on the Ravens. They would shake their heads and slump their shoulders, giving visual confirmation to the Texans defense that they'd done their job.

"Defense is playing lights out," nose tackle Ryan Pickett said. "That's the way we've been building up to play all year, and now we are putting it together."

The crescendo is coming at an important time for the Texans.
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 25-13 victory over Baltimore:
  • O'Brien
    When they walked out of the meeting, Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins joked that they thought Bill O'Brien was going to flip the podium over. His pregame speech was stirring. "If you wasn't ready to play before that, after the speech it really had your juices flowing," Johnson said. "... You have to do whatever you have to do to get the team going. I think what he said, he hit it right on the head. I just think that what he said needed to be said. I think a lot of people, because of the situation we went through, losing players and our quarterbacks and stuff like that, really didn't give us a chance to win today. We went out and proved a lot of people wrong." Count me among them. During the week, I picked the Ravens to win 14-3.
  • J.J. Watt arrived at his postgame news conference wearing a red Christmas sweater with a pair of black reindeer on it. Before the game, Watt chatted with former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo about the finger wag that Mutombo did after blocked shots and Watt does after batted passes. Watt offered an impression of Mutombo then said he sounded like the cookie monster. He also noted what a large man Mutombo, who stands at 7-foot-2, is. "I told him, I gotta walk away from you bro; you're killing my confidence before the game," Watt said.
  • Watt and Johnson were the last two players to leave the locker room. Watt congratulated Johnson and shook his hand as he left, and Johnson returned the sentiment. Johnson made career catch No. 1,000 on Sunday, and Watt became the franchise leader in sacks.
  • A beaming Texans owner Bob McNair said Sunday's game was the biggest win of the season. "Our defense just dominated to such an extent. It's unbelievable," he said. "... They made their offense totally ineffective."

Swat (Dikembe Mutombo) meets Watt. #BALvsHOU (David H. Philip/AP)

A photo posted by @nfl on

Rapid Reaction: Houston Texans

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
HOUSTON -- Some thoughts from the Houston Texans' 25-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens at NRG Stadium:

What it means: The Texans' defense dominated the Ravens in the first half, and by the time the Ravens did anything, it was too late for them to catch up. By halftime, the Ravens had two first downs, 17 yards passing and 14 yards rushing. Joe Flacco looked befuddled by what the Texans were doing. This was a statement game for the Texans' defense, and with it they kept alive the playoff hopes of a team now on its fourth quarterback of the season.

Stock watch: The Texans' receivers both hit milestones on Sunday. Andre Johnson became the second-fastest player in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches early in the game. His first catch of the day was a 35-yard bomb from quarterback Case Keenum on the Texans' first pass of the game. Meanwhile, his protégé, DeAndre Hopkins, became the fifth player in Texans history to reach 2,000 career receiving yards. He'll have a nice career.

Foster tosses a touchdown pass: In his return to Houston, Keenum won his first game as the Texans' starter, but the Texans' only touchdown pass of the game came from someone else. Keenum pitched the ball to Arian Foster, who threw it to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. It was the first touchdown pass thrown by a running back in the league this season, the first non-quarterback touchdown pass for the Texans since 2002, and it came on the first pass attempt of Foster's career. When Foster has been healthy, he's played well. This was another notch on his belt.

Game ball: This must go to a defensive player, and while J.J. Watt had another great game, Sunday's game ball goes to cornerback Kareem Jackson, who picked off Flacco twice. Both of Jackson's interceptions gave the Texans' offense great field position and led to Texans points. Cornerback A.J. Bouye also picked off Flacco.

What's next: The Texans finish the regular season by hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.
One team has its playoff spot locked up and the only real suspense remaining for it is whether it will finish with the No. 3 or 4 seed in the AFC. The other team has everything to play for still, because it hasn’t secured a playoff spot in the NFC.

That is what’s at stake at AT&T stadium when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Dallas Cowboys.

Here are three storylines to the game:

Defense needs to stop up: Two significant numbers stick out with the Colts’ defense: 246 and 522. They gave up 246 yards rushing to New England before starting their four-game winning streak against teams that will be on vacation in a little more than week. The Colts gave up 522 yards passing to Pittsburgh two weeks prior to the Patriots running past them. Now they get to face one of the most balanced offenses in the league. The Colts have to try to stop the Cowboys’ running game with or without DeMarco Murray (hand) in the game. And a tight end in Jason Witten and a receiver in Dez Bryant catching passes from quarterback Tony Romo. And Indianapolis has to find a way to get pressure on Romo while facing one of the top offensive lines in the NFL.

Protect the ball: This has become a weekly thing for Andrew Luck and the offense. The Colts have turned the ball over 12 times in the past four games. They are not going to get away with those mistakes against a Dallas team that is trying to make the playoffs and has the offensive playmakers to make the Colts pay for their miscues. Luck has thrown a pick-six in each of the past two games. He’s up to 20 turnovers -- 14 interceptions and six fumbles -- this season. The Colts haven't had a turnover-free game since facing the Giants on Nov. 3. That was six games ago.

Need it mentally: Several Colts players, including linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, talked throughout the week about how they needed to win the game to prove they can compete with playoff-caliber teams. Indy is 2-3 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. The record would be 2-4 if you count Philadelphia, which is fighting with the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. Lose, and the questions will continue about whether the Colts are truly competitors or just a team that can dominate the AFC South. "Yeah, we’ve clinched (the AFC South), but we’re out to keep that momentum and answer those questions that we can play better against better quarterbacks, better offenses," Jackson said.

Jacksonville Jaguars mailbag

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
Got questions about the Jacksonville Jaguars? I’ll try to answer a representative selection of them every Saturday. Submit your questions via Twitter to @ESPNdirocco.

@ESPNdirocco: The Jaguars' defense calls for the strong safety to play in the box and the free safety to be athletic and fast enough to cover the width of the field. You need a guy that can run and has good instincts to play a single high safety. Collins seems more of a fit as a strong safety and the Jaguars are pleased with Johnathan Cyprien and feel he'll be a better player when they can pair him up with the right free safety. A name to watch is New England's Devin McCourty, a former corner who is scheduled to become a free agent.

@ESPNdirocco: I would rank an elite pass-rusher No. 1 followed by RT/OL and then linebacker. Now, that could change based on which players they sign in free agency. For example, if they find a right tackle they feel good about then that need drops and I'd move linebacker up followed by tight end and free safety.

@ESPNdirocco: I'm going to go on the assumption that 10 is an absolute lock to return in 2015 and 1 is no way. So, I'd put Cecil Shorts at a 1, Alan Ball at a 2, and Marcedes Lewis at a 3 (but he'd have to re-work his contract). I'm 50-50 on Geno Hayes, which would mean a 5, but I'm at a 7/8 on Tyson Alualu. He's had a solid season behind Red Bryant and I think the Jaguars want to re-sign him at reasonable money. I can't see a big market for him so I'm expecting him to be back.

@ESPNdirocco: Making the playoffs next season is not out of the realm of possibility. Granted, a lot of things have to go right -- specifically, the OL has to improve and the rookies on offense, particularly Blake Bortles, need to take major steps -- but it's possible. I don't think it happens, though. As for Gus Bradley, I don't know that he gets fired if the team doesn't make the playoffs but I do think his seat gets screaming hot if the Jaguars don't enter next December hovering around .500. Winning five or six games isn't enough progress in 2015. I'm not saying he gets fired if that's the number of games they win next season but it would mean the Jaguars better make the playoffs in 2016.

@ESPNdirocco: It's impossible to answer this question because we don't yet know which players are going to be available. I know fans want the Jaguars to target tight end Julius Thomas, but there's no guarantee he hits the open market. Denver could sign receiver Demaryius Thomas to a big deal and franchise Julius Thomas, for instance. However, I can tell you what positions I believe the Jaguars are going to target: some veteran offensive linemen to provide competition and quality depth, a pass-catching tight end, and most likely a veteran receiver to replace Cecil Shorts. That doesn't mean Randall Cobb. Think more along the lines of what the Jaguars did in signing Torry Holt in 2009.

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts talked about wanting continuity on the offensive line this season.

That hasn’t been the case, as they could be using their ninth different starting lineup on the line against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Right tackle Gosder Cherilus has been ruled out for the game and Xavier Nixon will likely start there for the Colts. Offensive linemen Hugh Thornton (knee) and Joe Reitz (ankle) also have been ruled out against the Cowboys. Lance Louis is expected to start at right guard for the second straight week.

Here’s the rest of the injury report for the Colts:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It’s silly to say the Tennessee Titans have the first pick in the NFL draft as of today. Tennessee has played one more game than the other contenders, so they have the lead.

Two other two-win teams still have to play this weekend, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

Terry McCormick of 247 Sports runs through all the scenarios and says the Raiders can’t get the top pick if they tie for the worst record in the league.

Strength of schedule is the tiebreaker. The team that played the weaker schedule gets the higher pick at the top of the first round.

So for the Titans to land the No. 1 pick, they need to lose against Indianapolis next Sunday. Presuming Tampa Bay loses its final two games -- at home against Green Bay and New Orleans -- the Titans to need lose ground in strength of schedule.

Titans fans who want their team to draft No. 1 need teams the Titans have played to lose and teams the Bucs have played to win.

But some games involving those teams are a bit more complicated than others.

Here’s McCormick’s rundown of those games on the rest of the Week 16 schedule.
Eagles at Redskins: Titans fans should pull for the Redskins, having played both teams, with the Bucs having played only the Skins.

Browns at Panthers: Titans need the Panthers to come out on top in this one, as both have played the Browns, but the Bucs face Carolina twice a year.

Ravens at Texans: Pull for the Ravens, Titans fans. A loss by division rival Houston counts double.

Vikings at Dolphins: Vikings. Minnesota was on Tampa Bay's schedule this season, but neither the Titans nor Bucs faced the Dolphins.

Chiefs at Steelers: Another key game. The Titans played both teams; the Bucs only played Pittsburgh. A loss from KC helps Tennessee.

Colts at Cowboys: The Titans benefit more by having the Cowboys win, adding two Indy losses to their strength of schedule.
INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton spent the week watching practice instead of participating in it.

That usually means a player won’t play in the upcoming game.

But Colts coach Chuck Pagano has not officially ruled Hilton out for Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Colts are calling Hilton questionable with a left hamstring injury.

“This guy is pretty special,” Pagano said. “Don’t count him out.”

The question is: Why do the Colts need to play Hilton?

They’ve already wrapped up the AFC South and a playoff spot. The only reason to play him is because the Colts’ offense has sputtered lately and they could want to avoid the No. 4 seed, which could end up being a road game at New England in the second weekend of the playoffs.

But are those two things worth risking Hilton re-injuring his hamstring and then being out an extended period of time?

No, it's not worth playing him. Hilton is the Colts’ best offensive playmaker and they can’t afford to be without him in the playoffs. The Colts know that, too/ That’s why it would be surprising if Hilton played against a Dallas team that is trying to lock up a playoff spot still.

“[I want to]) make sure I’m healthy,” Hilton said. “Don’t want to go out there and hurt the team and they can use the spot on somebody else. If I’m 100 [percent] and I’m feeling good, I’ll go out there and play.”

Hilton injured his hamstring in the second half of last weekend’s victory over the Houston Texans. He’s fourth in the league in receiving yards with 1,345.

“For me I have a lot of gears, I want to hit that first gear and that last gear,” Hilton said. “If I’m able to do that then I should be fine.”

If Hilton doesn’t play, Pagano talked like he was comfortable going with just Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Josh Cribbs at receiver instead of adding Griff Whalen from the practice squad because of the versatility they have at tight end.

“There’s enough skill position guys,” Pagano said. “Having a guy like Coby [Fleener]and a guy like Dwayne [Allen], they give you flexibility as far as being in-line tight ends and then flexing them out. You guys know we’ve displaced them from a formation standpoint, got them out in space. It’s great to have guys that can go do that and move around.”
HOUSTON -- Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett might be on injured reserve, but he's far from scarce around the team's facility and practices lately.

 Wearing a sling on his right side, Mallett just wants to be around and to help.

"Obviously, I can’t help physically," Mallett said. "Anything I can help Case [Keenum] with, if he has questions, I try. I’m not going to get in his way but if he needs to ask a question about what to do I help him."

He's done such a good job of that, it's made Texans' coach Bill O'Brien think Mallett could have coaching in his future if he wants to do that someday.

"The guy really has an understanding off football, and he’s been out there really helping out a lot in the meetings, in the walk throughs, out at practice," O'Brien said. "He’s a really good teammate. ... He is a very good communicator when it comes to knowledge of the system."

Makes sense, as Mallett comes from a family of coaches -- including his father, uncles and grandfathers.

Mallett, who had surgery to repair a torn right pectoral muscle last month, keeps his focus right now on the short term. His long-term plans? He'll think about that later.

"Of course, I like it here," he said, when asked if he wanted to return to Houston next season. "I love the system. It’s not that time of year to discuss that. We’re still in the season. We’ll focus on the Ravens."

Colts vs. Cowboys preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
When: 4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas TV: CBS

The Dallas Cowboys will host the Indianapolis Colts for the first time at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. While both teams are 10-4, their postseason plans are completely different.

The Colts have already clinched a playoff spot by winning the AFC South. The Cowboys lead the NFC East, but any slipup in the final two games could not only cost them the division but a playoff spot altogether.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer offer up this week's preview:

Todd Archer: This is the first time the Cowboys will see Andrew Luck in person. His numbers are impressive, but it seems a little disconcerting to see him with 14 interceptions, up there with Jay Cutler, Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton. Is there any explanation for the high number of picks, besides the fact that they throw the ball a lot?

Mike Wells: I'll add on to Luck's turnover problems. He has also lost six fumbles, tied for first in the league in that category along with the now-benched Cutler. One of Luck's strongest attributes -- his competitiveness -- is also one of his biggest downfalls. He doesn't believe in giving up on a play. Rather than take a sack or throw the ball away, he believes he can extend a play with his legs or fit a tight throw in. Crazy part is, Luck should have more than 14 interceptions this season. There have been several throws on which the defensive player just dropped the pass. Luck knows he can't continue to make the "bonehead," as he calls them, mistakes.

DeMarco Murray's status for Sunday appears to be uncertain. Let's assume he doesn't play. How much would Dallas' offensive scheme change without him in the lineup?

Archer: I don't think it would change that much. The Cowboys' identity has been the running game and the offensive line. I do believe they have faith in backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. To me, Randle would get the bulk of the carries if Murray can't go. Even if Murray does play, I think the Cowboys would monitor his snaps anyway, considering he had surgery on Monday. The Cowboys just can't abandon the run. It has made Tony Romo a better quarterback. He has been able to take advantage of coverages teams play because the defense has to commit to stopping the run. Romo has thrown more than 30 passes in a game this season just four times. It would surprise me if he is over that number this week if the game is not out of whack with the Colts leading big.

I mentioned how the Colts throw a ton, but how has the running game changed with Daniel Herron becoming more of a fixture than Trent Richardson?

Wells: The Colts don't have a running game. If they rush for more than 100 yards as a team, Luck usually has contributed a significant portion of those yards. Things drastically changed for the Colts once Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season with a fractured fibula on Nov. 16. They lack consistency in the backfield. Herron is a better runner than Richardson -- outrushing Richardson in three of the four games he's played -- but Richardson is a better pass-blocker, and that's what the Colts need more because the offensive line continues to be inconsistent. If the Colts are going to make a run in the playoffs, they will have to do it with Luck's arm.

Sticking with the running game, how much credit for Murray's success goes to the offensive line? The O-line is the group on most teams that rarely gets praised but is quick to get criticized when it can't open holes or protect the quarterback.

Archer: I think a lot of the credit goes to the line and line coaches Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack. It’s helped by the fact that the Cowboys have three first-rounders among the group in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, but Ronald Leary and Doug Free have also played well. They have a good blend of power and smarts. They help each other out. They're smart. They have had really just one bad game as a group. But this week will be a test because of injuries. Free is in question because of an ankle injury. If he can't play, Jermey Parnell would start. He did OK when Free missed three games earlier in the season. Martin is also dealing with an ankle sprain, but he was able to gut it out to finish the Philadelphia game. I talked earlier about the Cowboys' willingness to run the ball this year. Well, now they have to step up even more if Murray can’t play (or is limited).

The Colts are 10-4 and have clinched a playoff spot. They have a great quarterback, top receiver and a decent enough passing game, but I'm skeptical about just how good they are in part because they play in a terrible division. So, I guess, how good are these Colts? Can they beat New England or Denver in the AFC and get to the Super Bowl?

Wells: Don't worry about it. I'm just as skeptical of the Colts. They are 11-0 in the AFC South the past two seasons, with another win expected at Tennessee to close out the year. But everybody knows the AFC South is possibly the worst division in the league. The Colts are 2-3 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. Their three losses were to Denver, New England and Pittsburgh. The Patriots ran for more than 200 yards against them, and the Steelers had more than 600 yards of total offense. The Colts have had this game against the Cowboys circled on the calendar since the Patriots embarrassed them last month. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said Dallas is the most balanced offensive team they will face this season. The Colts need this victory, from a mental standpoint, to prove they can beat a team that is capable of putting up a lot of points.

I recall talking to you earlier this season, and it didn't seem like you were a firm believer in the Cowboys. Have you changed your thought? If so, do you believe they are capable of making a run in the NFC?

Archer: I guess it depends on how you want to define "making a run." They haven't qualified for the playoffs yet, and a loss Sunday would be a huge blow to those chances. But I'll go with the premise that they make it for this answer. I think they can make a run because of their style of play. Plus, they are 7-0 on the road this season. It might be better to be the wild card, but the odds of making it as a wild card are steep because it would require Seattle or Detroit to lose in the final two weeks. I have been skeptical this season. I don't know how anybody could have expected this from the Cowboys at the beginning of the year. Heck, Jerry Jones even said it would be an uphill battle. The coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for getting to this position. Now that they are this close, they can't blow it. They have to make the playoffs. I look around at the rest of the NFC, and there is a "why not the Cowboys?" feeling. They already beat the Seahawks in Seattle. The Packers just lost to Buffalo. I don't see a dominant team in the conference, so, yeah, they could make a run. But first, they have to get in the playoffs.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On paper, it looks like Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles played poorly against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on Thursday night.

He completed just 13 passes for 115 yards, both the lowest totals of his rookie season.

Those numbers, though, don't truly capture everything Bortles did to help the Jaguars beat the Titans 21-13 in front of 61,202 and a national television audience. On paper, he wasn't good. On the grass, he was.

After the Jaguars' offense managed just 16 yards on its first four possessions, Bortles sparked a pair of touchdown drives sandwiched around the halftime break to rally the Jaguars from a 10-0 deficit and send them to their third victory of the season. He did it with his legs as much as his arm, an impressive feat considering there was some doubt that he would even be on the field.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bortles
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesBlake Bortles crossed up the Titans on the ground, running for 50 yards to help the Jaguars to their third victory.
"That’s that 'it' factor, man," receiver Cecil Shorts III said. "That’s why he went third overall. He's got that 'it' about him. When you really need it, he's going to make the play, he's going to find a guy, he's going to do what he needs to do.

"You’re only going to see him continue to get better and better and better."

Bortles was limited in practice all week because of a right midfoot sprain, which he suffered on a sack during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 20-12 loss to Baltimore. Coach Gus Bradley wasn't sure Bortles would be able to play against the Titans until he watched the rookie go through a workout on the field several hours before the game. Even though Bortles was cleared to play, he was expected to be limited in terms of scrambling and running the ball.

Nobody told Bortles this, though. The No. 3 overall draft pick from Central Florida played the way he has all season -- he ran bootlegs, he scrambled away from pressure and he carried the ball on a couple of zone-read plays as well.

"If I was able to play, I was going to go play like I know how, like I do," Bortles said. "I wasn't going to go out there if I couldn't run around and move and help the offense at all."

For a while, he wasn't helping, but he wasn't alone. The Jaguars had just 16 yards on their first 14 offensive snaps. Bortles completed four of eight passes for 10 yards in that stretch and was sacked twice, including one on which he was hammered by linebacker Derrick Morgan and fumbled.

But things changed on the fifth possession, which began at the Jacksonville 20-yard line with 3:46 remaining in the first half. Bortles completed five of seven passes for 42 yards and a touchdown and also had a 9-yard scramble to convert a third-and-9. Three plays later he found tight end Marcedes Lewis for a 4-yard touchdown.

Bortles was even better on the first possession of the second half. He hooked up with Marqise Lee for a 34-yard reception on third-and-7 and also ran for 12 yards on a third-and-goal from the 14. The Titans were penalized for holding on the play, giving the Jaguars a first down at the 1-yard line.

Bortles also had a 19-yard scramble on third-and-12 later in the third quarter, finishing with 50 yards on five carries.

So much for limited mobility.

It was a gritty performance, especially from a rookie who is still adjusting to the speed of the game, learning to read defenses and playing behind an offensive line that has allowed a team-record 66 sacks.

"We've known this whole time he's a tough guy," left tackle Luke Joeckel said. "We watch him play. He’s a hard-nosed guy. He takes some hits and he pops right back up. We knew going in this game he was a little bit limited, but he didn't show it at all and he made plays.

"He's got that confidence and he's got that ability. He's a great leader and he's fun to follow. As an offensive lineman, you love to follow guys that go out there and just compete."

It wasn't pretty, and anyone just looking at the box score will call this one of Bortles' worst games. In reality, it was probably one of his best. He was struggling, and the offense was struggling, but he came through when it mattered most. We saw that against the New York Giants, when he led the Jaguars on a game-winning drive, and we saw it again against the Titans.

"You know you're going to have games like this and you're going to win," Bortles said. "I couldn't be happier to be a part of it. Some things are going to happen and you're going to win games when you throw for 400 yards and you lose some as well. So it’s part of it. I'm just glad we won."
Some additional thoughts on the Tennessee Titans following their 21-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville:

Successful homecoming: Running back and returner Leon Washington grew up right near EverBank Field. He has played way more than I expected he would on offense this season, to the point I’d say he’s a Ken Whisenhunt favorite. He was a key part of the success the Titans did have on Thursday.

Washington caught an 8-yard pass from Charlie Whitehurst for the Titans' touchdown.

The third-down back got more action than usual, in part because Dexter McCluster was placed on injured reserve with a fractured kneecap earlier in the day.

The Titans looked to Washington seven times on third down, with three handoffs and four passes. He converted five of his seven chances, finishing with a team-high seven catches for 62 yards.

Third down: The Titans own the worst third-down offense in the league but converted seven of 15 chances, thanks in large part to Washington's efforts. It was the second-best third-down game for the team this season and the best since Week 5 against Cleveland. It wasn't enough to stop the team's losing streak, though.

Fourth-quarter run defense: The Titans came into the game having allowed a league-high 147 carries in the fourth quarter for 495 yards. That’s what happens to teams that trail as often as the Titans do.

Jacksonville picked up on that and was able to run in the final quarter to build and sit on its lead. Jordan Todman went for a 62-yard touchdown to grow the Jacksonville lead to 21-10 with 9:13 left in the game. The Jags ran 10 times for 92 yards and four first downs in the final period.

Beaten by the rookie: Blake Bortles went without throwing an interception for just the second time all season. The rookie quarterback also had his second-best running game of the season, with five carries for 50 yards.

Bortles converted a third-and-9 and a third-and-14 with runs, and the Jags turned both drives into touchdowns.

The third-and-14 play resulted in a 12-yard run, but Titans inside linebacker Avery Williamson was flagged for defensive holding of Marcedes Lewis. The play gave the Jaguars a first-and-goal at the Titans' 1-yard line, from where Toby Gerhart scored to give Jacksonville its first lead, 14-10.

Even a ground attack ranked 25th in the NFL had its way with Tennessee.

Mic’d Up: Receiver Nate Washington wore a microphone for NFL Network. He told the offense, “Just because we scored on the first drive doesn’t make us great; we play a full 60 minutes.”

Unfortunately for the Titans, the remainder of those 60 minutes produced two Ryan Succop field goals, a 50-yarder and a 23-yarder.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 21-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field.

What it means: The Jaguars' offense finally showed some life Thursday night, and it was a long time coming. The Jaguars entered the game against the Titans with just two offensive touchdowns in their last four games and spent their first four drives looking like they were playing with only eight men on the field. The offensive line gave up two sacks while the Jaguars totaled just 16 yards. But things turned on their final possession of the first half. Quarterback Blake Bortles started scrambling and making plays, running back Toby Gerhart pounded out some tough yards, and receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Marcedes Lewis made a couple of big catches. The 80-yard drive ended with Bortles' 4-yard touchdown pass to Lewis. The Jaguars went 72 yards for another touchdown on their first possession of the second half. Those two drives were the best the offense has looked since before the bye week in mid-November.

Stock watch: If this indeed was the last home game for receiver Cecil Shorts, he didn't exactly go out with a bang. Shorts caught two passes for 15 yards and he and Bortles just didn't seem to be in sync at all. Bortles targeted Shorts seven times, and at least three of those passes appeared to be catchable. Granted, a few would have been tough, but as the only veteran receiver on the roster he needs to make those catches. Shorts did have a key catch to convert a third down on the Jaguars' clock-eating final drive to preserve the victory, though. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and his chances of re-signing aren't good unless he's willing to accept a deal for significantly less money than he'd like.

Big swing: The Jaguars opened up a double-digit lead -- haven't been able to write that sentence much this season -- on a two-play sequence. The defense stopped the Titans on fourth-and-2 by forcing quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to throw short of the first-down marker, and running back Jordan Todman went 62 yards for a touchdown on the next play to put the Jaguars ahead 21-10 with nine minutes to play.

Game ball: Bortles' numbers weren't great (13-of-26, 115 yards, one touchdown), but he did ignite the offense late in the first half by making plays by running (a 9-yard scramble on third-and-9) and hitting some key throws. He ended up rushing for 50 yards on five carries.

What's next: The Jaguars finish the 2014 season at Houston on Dec. 28.