Never has the opportunity been more golden, primarily for the Texans but also for the Titans. The Peyton Manning-less Colts are not going to win the AFC South this season, leaving the door ajar for the Texans, Titans and, to a lesser extent, the Jaguars, to kick in authoritatively.
NFL players claim that their lone concern is what happens in their locker room, but the Texans realized the Colts' vulnerability once Manning was sidelined following his second neck surgery of the offseason. And though they had designs on securing their first AFC South title and corresponding playoff berth with or without Manning calling the Colts' signals, the Texans understand that division dynamics have been altered. Indianapolis has won seven of nine AFC South titles.
"You can look at what Peyton has done the past 13 years with his track record with Indianapolis," Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. "But for us, if Peyton was playing our mentality was not going to change about going 1-0 each week. The only (guaranteed) way to go to the playoffs is to win your division. For us, that's our main goal: to get to the playoffs."
With Manning out of the picture, that goal becomes more attainable for the hopefuls. What is most critical is not squandering the opportunity, with Sunday at L.P. Field in Nashville, Tenn., presenting the Texans and Titans a chance to get a leg up on the other. The Titans (3-2) are in first place but have an AFC South loss to the Jaguars on their ledger. The Texans (3-3) can assume sole control of first with a win and, of equal significance, move to 2-0 in the division. They beat the Colts in Week 1.
Mid-to-late-October seems mighty early to attach crucial status to a divisional contest, particularly in light of how the Texans and Titans closed last season. The Titans were 5-3 heading into their open week and then followed that solid start with a five-game skid. They won one game in the second half of the season, a 31-17 home victory over the Texans, en route to a 6-10 finish and quite the tumultuous offseason.
The Texans were 4-2, including 1-0 in the AFC South after throttling the Colts at Reliant Stadium in the opener, heading into their open week. They then dropped four consecutive games, a skein slowed by a 20-0 home triumph over the Titans, only to lose four more in succession.
In-season momentum is fickle. Injuries may mount and teams might lose an All-Pro receiver or a defensive end that holds the franchise record for career sacks. Players emerge, rosters jell and hot streaks appear from the ether. One win, or loss, in October might not matter.
But divisional wins are coveted, no matter when they manifest. Hoping for a run of victories or guarding against a losing skein is immaterial when those precious moments to handle pressing business are at hand.
"I think we both realize how important a division game is no matter when it's being played," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "And yeah, we all know that, win or lose, it doesn't mean the other team is finished or out of the race. We know that there's a long, long way to go. We found out last year ourselves for us - we were 1-7 after the bye. We know how things can change quickly in a season.
"But there's no doubt it's fun. I don't know when was the last time we had a division game this early that meant so much for both teams when you're competing for first place at this point. I think right now it adds to the fun to it. This is what the game is all about, and I'm sure (Texans coach) Gary (Kubiak) feels the same way for the Texans. This is a great opportunity for them to come in and take control of the division."
Don't be so sure, Mike. Kubiak opted for a more clichd approach to Sunday, tossing this game on the pile with the other 15 on the schedule.
"They're all important," Kubiak said. "I don't think you can put a thumb on any one game; you can probably look back at the end of the season and be able to do that. Right now you've just got to make sure you're trying to play as good as you can play each week. This is the biggest one of the year because it's the next one, so we've got to play well."
A handful of Texans see this Sunday differently. Manning won't suit up, and the Titans are either ascendant or playing above their heads. With the Colts winless and the Jaguars (1-5) struggling and starting a rookie quarterback (Blaine Gabbert), the Texans could begin the process of seizing control of this mediocre division. Will the winner ultimately be on par with the Seahawks from last season, who claimed the NFC West with a sub-.500 record to become the first team with such an ignominious distinction? Probably not, but 10 wins should do the trick.
The Texans have spent the past couple of weeks cursing their injury luck, but they could go a long way toward controlling their destiny by defeating the Titans. It's never too early to get a head start on success.
"We know our goal is to make the playoffs, but the fastest way to get to the playoffs is winning your division," Texans fullback James Casey said. "We can't hope for not winning our division and getting a wild-card spot. You've got to focus on winning your division because that guarantees you a spot in the playoffs. That's our focus right now and that's why this is such a pivotal game going into Tennessee right now.
"Everybody is amped up for this game. You can just feel it with the team, through our meetings today. Coach doesn't have to say anything, we understand how big of a game this is and how we've got to be on top of our stuff. We've got to go to Tennessee and play the best we've played all year."
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