The NFL got exactly what it wanted.
Motivated by a lack of meaningful games in the final few weeks of recent regular seasons, the league altered its approach to scheduling and attempted to emphasize divisional play late in this one.
A case can be made that the impetus for the movement was the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts, who have won five of the last six division titles by two games or more, routinely have rested their regulars, lost games and impacted the playoff race when they had nothing at stake.
This year, with five weeks to play, no division is more unsettled than the AFC South. Jacksonville and Indianapolis are tied for first at 6-5. Tennessee and Houston are a game back at 5-6.
That’s right, even though they lost four games in a row the Titans are in the thick of the division race.
“Fortunately we’ve been given an opportunity that you usually don’t see too often late in the season,” Tennessee linebacker Gerald McRath said. “That’s why you have to stay positive and keep believing in what you’re doing.
“… This is the time that you can’t ask for anything better than to almost have a say in your destiny. It’s still in our hands because we still have so many division games left.”
All four teams will face each other at least once between now and the end of the season, with the exception of Indianapolis and Houston. In all there will be six intra-divisional matchups over the next five weeks beginning with Sunday’s game at LP Field between the Titans and Jaguars.
“We know how the game always is when we play those guys,” Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard said. “We know they’re always going to bring it, so we can’t think about records and that kind of stuff. It’s the next game and it’s a division game, so it’s a very, very important game.”
The rundown of the matchups:
• This week: Jacksonville at Tennessee
• Week of Dec. 12: Indianapolis at Tennessee (Thursday)
• Week of Dec. 19: Houston at Tennessee; Jacksonville at Indianapolis
• Week of Jan. 2: Jacksonville at Houston; Tennessee at Indianapolis
“I learned a long time ago not to get too concerned with how the schedule works out,” Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said. “Whether you think it’s to your advantage or not, you have to go play the games. You can’t play them all at once; you play them one at a time.
“…We’re all sitting there within a game of each other and all have an opportunity.”
Since the NFL expanded and realigned into eight divisions, the Titans (twice) and Colts (six times) are the only teams that have won the AFC South. The Colts already have more losses than any season since 2002, the division’s first.
Thanks to the schedule, no one in the AFC South, including Indianapolis, will ease toward the finish.
“What we said (when the schedule was released) was, ‘Your season is going to be determined over the last five or six weeks of the year because you’re in the division.’” Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said “Now no one anticipated the injury situation up in Indy, which I think has contributed to their losses, but it’s there for everybody.”
• Offensive coordinator Mike Heimderdinger began chemotherapy treatments for his recently diagnosed cancer and was not at practice.
His status for Sunday’s game was undetermined. Fisher said one possibility was that Heimerdinger could be in the pressbox as a consultant rather than down on the sideline calling plays as usual.
If Heimerdinger cannot call plays, quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains will perform that task.
“Mike’s situation, as you can imagine, is a little up in the air and Mike as of late (Tuesday) night sent the practice scripts over,” Fisher said. “So we’re going to communicate with him and we’re preparing like Mike is not going to be able to call the game and then we’ll adjust it … but knowing Mike I’m sure he’ll be there.”
• Cortland Finnegan said he was not surprised that Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson was not suspended by the league after their altercation last Sunday in which both players ripped off the other’s helmet but Johnson delivered a series of punches.
“I knew once I turned on the TV after the game and the commentators and people were talking and they were saying he’s a great guy and how I wasn’t a great guy, and I knew right then we would probably be levied the same kind of fine,” Finnegan said.
Both players were fined $25,000.
• Wednesday’s workout deviated from the norm in that the last half was conducted as a walk-through. Kerry Collins did all the work with the first team offense, though, which increased the optimism that he will start against the Jaguars.
“He’s much better, actually he’s better than he was Sunday which is encouraging,” Fisher said.
• Also involved in the workout was wide receiver Kenny Britt, who ran without any obvious discomfort. Britt has missed the last three games and most of a fourth with a hamstring injury.
“I went out there and had a great stretch, a great practice … and I felt well,” Britt said. “It hurts me tremendously to not be in the games and to be watching from the sideline.
“… Hopefully I’m back now to play this game.”