Impact of Luck’s extended absence for the rest of the AFC South

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Matt Hasselbeck #8 of the Indianapolis Colts scrambles against the Houston Texans on October 8, 2015 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (November 11, 2015) – The collective groan you heard Tuesday was Colts Nation reacting to the news quarterback Andrew Luck could miss up to six weeks with a lacerated kidney and partially-torn abdominal muscle.

The reaction from the AFC South’s other precincts undoubtedly resided at the other end of the spectrum.

While only the most heartless of individuals draws pleasure when a player – backup, starter, franchise quarterback – is sidelined with an injury, it’s only natural for division rivals to consider the potential impact. And let’s be brutally honest: taking Luck out of the Colts’ offense for the foreseeable future could have an enormous impact.

So, yes, there is renewed hope for the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, despite their combined 7-17 record.

The arrow clearly was pointing up Sunday evening.

Luck returned to being an efficient playmaker and quit being a turnover machine. The Colts ended a three-game losing streak with a 27-24 victory over the previously-unbeaten Denver Broncos. They pushed their record to 4-5 and regained sole possession of first place in the AFC South, a notch ahead of the 3-5 Texans.

The bye week would provide ample time for players dealing with the normal bumps and bruises and sprains and strains that accumulate over nine weeks to heal. It might even allow safety Mike Adams to recover from an injury to his left ankle.

Then the shockwaves created by Luck’s injuries.

“One heck of a blow,” Coach Chuck Pagano said.

Or, if you’re the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars, it’s one heck of an opening.

No one with an ounce of football acumen can argue the AFC South is anything more than what it is: the NFL’s worst division.

But somebody’s got to win it and claim the first-round home playoff game awarded to a division champion.

The Colts remain in the driver’s seat, but now it’s Matt Hasselbeck at the wheel until Luck returns. His presence should ease the angst. When Luck missed two games with the injury to his right shoulder, he was efficient while directing wins over Jacksonville and Houston, and did so while battling a nasty bacterial infection that required a short stint in the emergency room and countless IVs.

“We’ve won with Matt,” Pagano said.

Now, they must win again with Hasselbeck. At 40, he’s the league’s oldest non-kicker. In 17 seasons, he’s posted an 82-72 record as a starter and passed for 35,443 yards and 206 touchdowns.

We’ll see if Hasselbeck can enjoy sustained success. The last time he started more than two games in a season was in 2012 with the Titans.

However, there’s no denying he’s proven worthy of the one-year, $3 million contract owner Jim Irsay extended in March. To give his 2-0 record perspective, consider 11 other backups who’ve been thrust into games this season have combined for a 5-18 record. With Tony Romo out with a broken collarbone, the Dallas Cowboys have lost six straight for the first time since 1989 behind Brandon Weeden (0-3) and Matt Cassel (0-3).

We’ve written ad nauseam about the Colts’ dominance of the AFC South. They’ve won 16 straight against division opposition, the longest such streak in the NFL since the 1970 merger. They’ve already swept the first round of the home-and-home series, including road wins against the Texans and Titans.

But if the Colts falter while Luck mends, all bets are off.

Looking ahead, the schedule is conducive to a third straight division schedule even with Luck missing extended time. The Colts’ remaining seven opponents have a .414 winning percentage (24-34). The rest: Houston 37-29, .561; Tennessee 36-29, .554; Jacksonville 25-43, .368.

Let’s not dismiss the Jaguars, who haven’t posted a winning record since 2007. They face only one team that currently has a winning record (6-3 Atlanta). The next four are a combined 8-25.

The remaining schedules, including opponents’ current record:

Colts (4-5): at Atlanta (6-3), Tampa Bay (3-5), at Pittsburgh (5-4), at Jacksonville (2-6), Houston (3-5), at Miami (3-5), Tennessee (2-6).

Texans (3-5): at Cincinnati (8-0), New York Jets (5-3), New Orleans (4-5), at Buffalo (4-4), New England (8-0), at Colts (4-5), at Tennessee (2-6), Jacksonville (2-6).

Titans (2-6): Carolina (8-0), at Jacksonville (2-6), Oakland (4-4), Jacksonville (2-6), at New York Jets (5-3), at New England (8-0), Houston (3-5), at Colts (4-5).

Jaguars (2-6): at Baltimore (2-6), Tennessee (2-6), San Diego (2-7), at Tennessee (2-6), Colts (4-5), Atlanta (6-3), at New Orleans (4-5), at Houston (3-5).

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