Calling it down the middle, the AFC South has been a one-team buffet for years now. In the Manning days, it was the Colts to have their way with, but in recent years it has reverted to the Texans, who have won the last two division titles. The Colts had a resurrection last year under its newest star signal caller Andrew Luck, and made every game of the season count. But while this was happening, there were the Jaguars and Titans, who have been on a search for identity while both of these runs have been going.
Now with a new year on deck, there are new dynamics all around. Can the Texans hold off the rise of the Colts? Or were the upstarts in Indy moving ahead of their time, and on course for a return to the middle in year two. Meanwhile, will the Jaguars be able to avoid the path that nearly landed them atop the NFL Draft a year ago, and can Tennessee saddle up with its old horse with a few new adjustments to get him back to where he was?
QB: Andrew Luck RB: Arian Foster, Chris Johnson WR: Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Cecil Shorts TE: Owen Daniels OT: Duane Brown, Eugene Monroe OG: Andy Levitre, Wade Smith C: Chris Myers
DE: JJ Watt, Derrick Morgan DT/NT: Aubrayo Franklin, Jurrell Casey OLB: Brooks Reed, Robert Mathis MLB: Brian Cushing, Paul Posluszny CB: Jonathan Joseph, Jason McCourty FS: Ed Reed SS: Bernard Pollard
K: Rob Bironas P: Shane Lechler KR: Mark Mariani PR: TY Hilton
HOUSTON TEXANS (12-4 in 2012)
The Good: There are playmakers everywhere on this defense. In addition to Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, who may have had the most complete defensive season in NFL history a year ago, Ed Reed has entered the picture as well. Age is catching up, but for the most instinctual player in game, that shouldn’t be much of a hindrance. Add in Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph and Brooks Reed, and they’ll be a problem once again.
The Bad: Which Arian Foster are they getting? The straw that stirs the drink on offense has be held back by HIS back for much of the offseason, and durability could become an issue. Ben Tate may be the best backup runner in the game, but for a team that’s so built around moving the ball on the ground being without its biggest weapon for a stretch is a tough scenario.
X-Factor—DeAndre Hopkins: Years back, the Texans could stretch the field, and it was not just Andre Johnson that could do it. But in recent years, that element has not been as prevalent. In an attempt to bring that back, the club added Hopkins with the 28th pick of the first round, who adds another vertical threat. On his 82 catches at Clemson last year, he averaged 17 yards per.
Schedule: @SD (W), TEN (W), @BAL (L), SEA (W), @SF (L), STL (W), @KC (W), IND (W), @ARI (W), OAK (W), JAX (W), NE (L), @JAX (W), @IND (L), DEN (W), @TEN (L)
Prediction: They have been the roosters in the hen house for years now down south, but the Colts put a charge into them by being able to beat them with the big play. They have addressed that on both sides of the ball, and still have the veteran core in addition to the developing young core that has kept them where they have been, and will stay. 11-5
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-5 in 2012)
The Good: They have invested in giving Andrew Luck everything he could possibly need at every stop. With Reggie Wayne still the mainstay and TY Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener still developing, they added Darius Heyward-Bey to be a home run hitter down the field. If Ahmad Bradshaw can add a new dynamic out of the backfield catching passes as well, a top 5 offense could be in brewing.
The Bad: They won with smoke and mirrors on defense last year. If the offense didn’t go big, they were getting run off the field. Only one playoff bound team gave up more yards than Indy’s 5,988 and 24.2 points a game. It is tempting to fate to think that will work twice, especially with dates versus San Francisco, Denver, Cincinnati, Seattle and a double dip with Houston on deck.
X-Factor—Matt Hasselbeck: In a perfect world, he never sees the field. But what he could do for Andrew Luck’s development as a passer could do more for the club than anything else. Cutting down on the 18 interception/9 fumble season rookie effort he posted as a rookie is on his shoulders, but the benefit of a year with a three-time Pro Bowl, former Super Bowl QB could escalate his curve immediately.
Schedule: OAK (W), MIA (W), @SF (L), @JAX (W), SEA (L), @SD (L), DEN (L), @HOU (L), STL (W), @TEN (L), @ARI (L), TEN (W), @CIN (W), HOU (W), @KC (L), JAX
Prediction: The team is going to go where the offense can take it. Luck will have to take better care of the ball, and they will have to get more from the ground, but it could see over 5,000 yards in the air by natural progression. But the defense is still similar to what took the field last year, and the likelihood of the same breaks that got them 10 wins a year ago are unlikely to come down again. 8-8
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2-14 in 2012)
The Good: They have a good set of playmakers on the outside in Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts. Shorts had a breakout season across the board his second season, going over 100 yards four times and averaged over 19 yards a catch in five separate games. Blackmon came on strong late in the year, including a seven catch, 236 yard breakout versus the Texans in week 11.
The Bad: They did little to turn the corner for a defense that gave up 380 yards and 27 points per week. This was due to a unit that put the least pressure on opposing QBs in the game a year ago (JJ Watt in 20.5 sacks, Jaguars 20). And with the inconsistent play on offense, once they get behind and survive with offenses having that much comfort to work with.
X-Factor—Luke Joeckel: While grabbing someone that could create some pressure would have been a good call, getting a guy with a chance to be a premium pass protector was too good to pass on. Blaine Gabbert has been unsteady with his pocket presence early in his career and landing Joeckel could help provide some much needed security.
Schedule: KC (L), @OAK (L), @SEA (L), IND (L), @STL (L), @DEN (L), SD (L), SF (L), @TEN (L), ARI (L), @HOU (L), @CLE (L), HOU (L), BUF (W), TEN (W), @IND (L)
Prediction: A bad defense with maybe the most decisively bad situation at quarterback in the NFL, the Jaguars are not in a place to make an impact outside of boosting the win column for others. With Blackmon suspended for four games, and game scenarios that don’t lend towards getting their lone bright spot, Maurice Jones-Drew, the ball as much as they’d like, a run to top of the 2014 Draft looks likely. 2-14
TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10 in 2012)
The Good: There’s an offense that has some shake to it, and they have a line to help it grow now. In recent years, Chris Johnson hasn’t lost a step, but he hasn’t had much time to get them moving before somebody met him. With the addition of Andy Levitre and the selection of All-American guard Chance Warmack, the former 2000 yard runner could see the most open field he’s found in years.
The Bad: The Titans gave up the most points in the NFL a year ago, including over 30 points seven different times. It’s a unit that hasn’t played to its talent, but also has to tackle better at linebacker and get better and coverage as well. In a division with two aggressive offenses in Houston and Indianapolis, and one of the best runners in the league, there’s little leeway for a soft unit week to week.
X-Factor—Jack Locker: Of all of the teams in the NFL, the Titans probably have the biggest unknown quantity behind center. The issue with him has never been the talent, but how it apply it regularly. In his first year as a starter, it was interrupted by an injury halfway through and saw him throw multiple interceptions in four of his last six games. If he turns the corner, they have a chance to succeed.
Schedule: @PIT (L), @HOU (L), SD (W), NYJ (W), KC (W), @SEA (L), SF (L), @STL (L), JAX (W), IND (W), @OAK (W), @IND (L), @DEN (L), ARI (L), @JAX (L), HOU (L)
Prediction: With a defense that is up in the air and inconsistent quarterback play, it is tough to see the Titans being a candidate to jump too far forward, or at all. They will be able to move the ball better on the ground, but if they cannot keep opponents honest, it won’t mean much. Look for a holding pattern here. 6-10