Posts Tagged ‘Indianapolis Colts’

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?

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

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

 

Watt broke through to rare air in his second season, leading the NFL in sacks and taking the Texans defense to elite status.

Watt broke through to rare air in his second season, leading the NFL in sacks, taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors and taking the Texans defense to elite status.

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

 

Luck set seven records as a rookie passer, including the most wins for a #1 pick quarterback, which was a 10 game turnaround from 2011.

Luck set seven records as a rookie passer, including the most wins for a #1 pick quarterback, which was a 10 game turnaround from 2011.

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 (W)

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

 

After spending last fall watching the back of a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M, Joeckel is tasking with re-installing confidence in the Jags attack.

After spending last fall watching the back of a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M, Joeckel is tasking with re-installing confidence in the Jags attack.

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

 

Johnson has never finished a season under 1,000 yards on the ground, but his yardage per game has dropped three straight years behind questionable blocking.

Johnson has never finished a season under 1,000 yards on the ground, but his yardage per game has dropped three straight years behind questionable blocking.

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

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Do you believe yet. Well, if you don't, you're surely not alone here.

Do you believe yet. Well, if you don’t, you’re surely not alone here.

I don’t write about the NFL during the entire season, but as a multi-year NFL Sunday Ticket subscriber, I watch a ton of it. And in that vein, here is my definitive take on NFL awards season … with a few personalized honors for a few clubs and players to run with too. Take heed, for the truth is waiting below on 2012 NFL Awards season for the 32-team warm-up part of the year.

Most Surprising Squad—Indianapolis Colts: There’s nobody else even approaching this. It’s deeper than Andrew Luck awakening the offense or taking advantage of a weakened AFC. This club put the worst year in the NFL, the loss of the franchise’s greatest player and a mid-season coaching change behind it, all while getting better the entire way. And headed into the playoffs, they still have folks sleeping on them.

Most Disappointing Squad—New York Giants: I’ve never seen a Super Bowl champion return more intact, but with less heart. Hollywood is a long way from NYC, but this club managed to take up the city’s worst traits. Most deceiving record in the game this year, and their inadequacies truly had to be seen to be believed.

All for Nothing Effort—Calvin Johnson: Anytime you break one of the Jerry Rice’s records, it’s a big deal. Megatron did it so easily, with triple teams being the norm … and it all contributed to 4 wins. Vintage Lions ball is back in style.

Most Suspect Success—Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are at that point where their seed doesn’t matter anymore. And coming off a wildly bad playoff effort (2 points was damn near bigger than 2 Chainz this year on Twitter), nobody is ready to believe until they see it, because even one January win is being billed as miracle at this point.

Longest Season—Kansas City Chiefs: There weren’t playoff expectations really, but the path the Chiefs took to the top of the draft felt even worse than the ’09 Lions’. Matt Cassel played a spectacularly bad QB, and the club didn’t even have a lead until week (?). Add in the Belcher tragedy and a remarkably top-tier talent-deficient draft as their reward, and this is truly the season from hell in West Missouri…..

 

And this is just the beginning. If you’re into MVP’s, Rookies of the Year and things of that sort, hit the link and head over to The Sports Fan Journal for the rest of my NFL awards rundown. Both official and ceremonial.

 

For live action on NFL Black Monday and playoff primers, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. Like right now.

"Yesterday....all my troubles seemed so far away..." - Peyton Manning...(not really but you get it)

The un-imaginable is really taking place; Peyton Manning isn’t going to be a Colt much longer. Right now, it’s not even for certain that he’s going to be an NFL player again really. But if Peyton is one thing, it’s tough. He never missed a game before 2011, and in that time he rarely even missed a snap. For all the debate about whether he will actually get on the field again, I honestly believe that if there was one player in the game that would die for it, it’s Peyton. Albeit, that’s what doctors and medical staffs are there for is to prevent kamikaze guys like him from actually doing that, but that’s neither here nor there.

I honestly believe that the Colts are going to have to make the toughest call on turning the page at QB since the 49ers had to move on from Joe Montana. In that case Steve Young made that decision a pretty easy one to live with, but the Colts have no reason to worry about who is next with top pick, uber-prospect Andrew Luck being on their roster nothing but a technicality of the NFL Draft making it official at this point.

But a healthy Peyton may be the best second life QB since Joe took his talents to Kansas City after being cast out from the team he built up from the ground to the heavens. He soon showed he had plenty of life left to him, and even pushed the Chiefs to an AFC Championship game. A healthy Peyton Manning is easily worth a few victories some hard up at quarterback clubs lose simply due to inept leadership in the pocket.

The Montana model is what could be in store for a club that looks into the disenfranchised Manning.

What teams are the best fits for a potential 4-time MVP, 11-time Pro Bowl free agent-to-be, which undoubtedly has a few more yards in him to add to the 54,828 he’s already covered? One thing for certain is that it opens up “a need” at QB for a lot more teams than there are without him on the market. A starter kit estimate would make sense for at least half the teams in the NFL to really take a hard look at how good they are now, and how much better they would be with Peyton on board.

The Dolphins, Redskins & Jets are the obvious contenders for his services, and no doubt he makes each of them a much better club (imagine Peyton in the AFC East going head up with Tom Brady and the Pats constantly?). Adding him to the NFC makes for even more intrigue in the most melodramatic division in the game. However, to see the true impact of his availability, the real impact is the fringe teams that come into play.

Regardless of what they say about their dedication to their current signal callers, the 49ers, Seahawks, Chiefs and Broncos would be foolish not at least inquire into his services. These are all teams that are one step away, and a healthy Manning takes everything about those teams to the next level. Cleveland has been a football wasteland for what seems like a millennium now, but nothing could kick the perpetual rebuilding phase to the gaining ground level like a move like this one. In Minnesota, Christian Ponder showed promise, but did he show that much to put off the possibility of pursuing Peyton and instantly reviving a sagging franchise in a super competitive division? They’ve danced a similar dance to this before, and the rewards they reaped were substantial.

How about the clubs that have high priced experiments in the mix such as the Cardinals and Jaguars? A Larry Fitzgerald-Manning combo is flat out Fantasy League-style fun to imagine and Blaine Gabbert could truly benefit from some bench time, just as new ownership could use the boom the league’s most marketable player brings to the gate. In the ultimate case of an emergency, what if (in the very definition and extreme of the term) the Saints can’t get a common ground with Drew Brees? It’s not a bad fall back to bring home town hero Peyton back to lead the Saints is it?

Much of this is speculation at its finest, but with the welcome mat being pulled in the house in Indianapolis, the unimaginable is about to become a very real situation soon. No matter what uniform he ends up in, it’s going to take a lot of eye wiping and head shaking to bring into focus. Getting ready for any and everything to take place in the biggest player auction in forever is going to be something to see, and in the end, could be the caffeine boost that either stagnant or on the verge team needs to have a pretty good run for a couple of years here.

Who’s got it in them to walk out on faith?

 

Follow me on Twitter, about 900 other folks will tell you it’s a good idea…most of the time. @CheapSeatFan.

While they didn’t make it all the way to the golden shores of Super Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers pushed their turnaround season to limit on Sunday night. Absolutely nobody would’ve picked a team coming off a 6-10 year, featuring a first time NFL coach leading a team with Alex Smith at quarterback, would end up a fumble and field goal away from being the best in the NFC this year.

Nobody.

It just goes to prove even further that nobody is ever truly out of it in the NFL. It only takes a few crucial moves, a quick change in philosophy and a bit of kind scheduling, to put a team in prime position to turn their whole fortunes around in the blink of an eye.

This time last year, nobody thought "Who's the next Alex Smith" could mean anything that didn't lead to a duel.

So who’s next? Can any of the bottom feeders from 2011 take on the full blown Cinderella move the Niners put on this year and wear the “glass cleat” they rocked almost all the way to the biggest dance of them all?

Well, yeah. It’s very possible, and there are a number of teams that have what it takes to have a day to the night that was the season that’s landed them atop the upcoming draft. So I’ve taken it upon myself to name a few of the most likely candidates to shock you later on this year.

 

Carolina Panthers: When you look at Carolina it’s easy to think Cam and that’s it, and for obvious good reason. The “better damn be Offensive Rookie of the Year to be” put on to the tune of 4,757 yards and 35 TDs this year, and carried the weight of a four game improvement. However, the best is yet to come here.

See, it seemed like it was a one man show because it had to be, mostly because they were among the most wounded teams in the league, with 18 players on the injured reserve. This impacted no side of the ball more than the defense where three starters were lost for virtually the entire season, most notably All-Pro linebacker Jon Beason. Him returning alone changes the whole potential of the club. Add in the the coin flipped eigth or ninth pick in the draft and a division full of teams undergoing makeovers and there could be a lot of noise coming out the Carolinas from more than just Mr. Newton.

The Miami Dolphins: In order to put your feet down and stop your misfortunes full speed like you’re riding that bike you had growing up with no brakes, you have to have a strength to lean on, and the Fins have that in their defense. After taking forever to wake up and realize the season had started, they played good football down the stretch. In all reality, it was more of a surprise that the defense played as bad as it did to start the year allowing the sixth fewest yards as a unit in the league.

Philbin will look to add the final spark to a Dolphins club that went 6-3 after a terrible start.

Now here’s the kicker, despite losing more games in ’11 from ’10, they actually gave up fewer points per game. As a bonus, the offense greatly overachieved in many regards, especially from the coming of age of Reggie Bush. New head coach Joe Philbin has already guarantees a change in philosophy on offense and has made landing a new QB top priority already (can you say Matt Flynn?), so pulling the offense up to speed with the defense is on pace.

Indianapolis Colts: Yeah, I know what just happened down there. It wasn’t even comical how much they got battered around the RCA Dome this year. On top of that, who knows who will be leading the way next year for that mess of an offense, will the defense get any better or who will even be calling the plays in. Sounds like a team that’s prone for another year on top of the draft right?

Wrong. The bottom line is that either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck will be leading this team next year, and that’s worth between 5 to 7 extra wins itself. Also, they are in a division that is still far from claimed, although the Texans are on the way up.

 

The offense can still go; it just needs a capable driver to handle it and one way or another that’s guaranteed. Also there is a hyper-competitive owner in Jim Irsay that is embarrassed and doesn’t look to be too gun shy about pulling the trigger on any possible move that gets him back in the playoffs immediately. 2011 was an aberration, and this team is definitely prime for strong 180 next year.

 

For more on the march to the biggest Bowl of the year and basically everything else I may end up doing throughout the day, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Well, the season that many months ago we thought might not be has finished it’s qualifying round and is headed towards it’s real season now. Unfortunately for most, only 12 clubs qualify for the bonus round, which leaves 20 left in line waiting for next fall already.

That means that the NFL Draft rumor mill can get to spinning it’s wheels with a bit more of a concrete picture now that the order in which the league’s lessors is set. One of the most intriguing races yesterday afternoon was to see who would not end up in, but who would end up the furthest out. When the Colts kept to their usual form of the year and fell to the nearly equally depressing Jacksonville Jaguars, it locked them in atop the Draft for the first time since 1998, when they selected Peyton Manning…who is now in hot water with them landing this pick and the best QB to approach the NFL since him sitting right there for the taking as well.

Bill Polian & owner Jim Irsay have a big decision to make, and Manning is at the "heart" of it in more ways than one.

However, there will be a lot of time for the dynamics of how this will all play out to be discussed, so for now here is how the non-playoff NFL Draft will go, along with a few of the biggest needs of each spot. Coin flips will be used to decide who will go in which spot in a few locations, and they will be noted with asterisks.

 

1. Colts (2-14): Luck or a QB (not the same thing)  DT, WR, OLB, Guard

2. Rams (2-14): OT, WR, LB, DT, CB

3. Vikings (3-13): CB, OT, S, WR

4. Browns (4-12): WR, RB, DE, QB, OT

5. Buccaneers (4-12): OLB, CB, OT, OG, RB

6. Redskins (5-11): QB, CB, OT, DT, WR

7. Jaguars (5-11): WR, CB, DE, QB, OT

8/9* Panthers (6-10): DT, OLB, WR, OG

8/9* Dolphins (6-10): DT, OT, QB, ILB, S

1o. Bills (6-10): OLB, WR, CB, OT, DE

11/12. Chiefs (7-9): OT, DT, QB, CB, TE

11/12* Seahawks (7-9): QB, DE, DT, OG, RB

13. Cardinals (8-8): OT, OG, OLB, QB, C

14. Cowboys (8-8): CB, S, OLB, OT, C

15. Eagles (8-8): ILB, OT, OLB, SS, DT

16. Jets (8-8): OLB, SS, OT, OG, RB

17. Bengals [via Raiders for Palmer] (9-7): CB, SS, OLB, DT, OG

18. Chargers (8-8): OT, DT, OC, OG, WR

19. Bears (8-8): WR, OT, FS, OLB, SS

20. Titans (9-7): DE, OG, DT, OLB, F/SS

 

There’s a lot of debate to be had and there’s a lot of football to play….except if you’re on this list. But no matter what, my advice is to not get too comfortable with where your team may be today, because this draft will have more wheeling and dealing than maybe the last three combined. Stay tuned.

 

In the in-between time, follow my wheeling, dealing, bumbling AND stumbling on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

The AFC South is segregated, has been for while (not in a Civil War is needed type of way). Ironically, it’s landlords have come from up north in Indianapolis however, and last year was no different. The Colts brought their eighth title home in ten years of the division. However, no division has potentially more change on deck than the South, and it all starts around what may not be in Indy.

The Houston Texans started off last season in a fashion that suggested change wasn’t going to wait until this year, as they aggressively knocked off the Colts to start the year off. Along the way, the Jaguars got into the mix and eventually became one of the most surprising party crashers in 2010 Playoffs. In the end, the Colts pulled together around Peyton Manning and pulled it out.

This year, for the first time ever, Peyton’s status is uncertain and therefore so is the Colts. Can the Jaguars capitalize on the momentum they discovered last year, or can the Texans finally live up to how they read on paper? How about the Titans? With Chris Johnson back and a new coach leading the way, maybe they’ll take the crown. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s bigger than just Peyton and the Colts will hold down the fort regardless. The times, they are-a changing down South..one way or four.

All-DIVISION TEAM

QB: Peyton Manning RB: Chris Johnson, Arian Foster WR: Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne TE: Dallas Clark OT: Michael Roos, Eric Winston OG: Wade Smith, Jonathan Scott C: Jeff Saturday

DE: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis DT: Terrance Knighton, Tyson Alualu OLB: Mario Williams, Jimmy Durant MLB: DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing CB: Cortland Finnegan, Jonathan Joseph S: Antoine Bethea, Michael Griffin

K: Rob Bironas P: Matt Turk Returner: Mark Mariani

HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10 in 2010)

Offense: A. Johnson-WR, A. Foster-RB, M. Schaub-QB, O. Daniels-TE (A-)

Defense: M. Williams-OLB, D. Ryans-MLB, B. Cushing-MLB, J. Joseph-CB (C+)

The Good: They are being retooled as potential blitzing machine. While the secondary was shredded last season, a lot of what hurt them was a limited blitz. The focus in the offseason was to use the tools in place better and bring in new assets to get after the passer frequently. Mario Williams will move to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme coordinator Wade Phillips will employ, and JJ Watt and Brooks Reed were drafted to bring plenty of trouble around the field.

The Bad: Their greatest strength is on shaky ground. Arian Foster totaled over 1,600 rushing yards and led the league, but much of his offseason was spent battling hamstring injuries. His emergence gave the Texans the running threat they long needed to balance out their air-only attack. Having him sidelined for any period of time this year could hold back any hopes of a takeover this season.

A new look defense is the focus, and it will be on Mario Williams & company to exorcise the Texans demons.

X-Factor-Jonathan Joseph: The Texans hemorrhaged 267 yards per game on average to opposing quarterbacks, so saying they needed to make some changes at cornerback is obvious. Enter Jonathan Joseph, who made the jump to Houston from Cincinnati and instantly inherits a world of expectation. How well he performs behind the revamped defensive rush can improve the entire team’s potential.

Fearless Projection: IND (W), @MIA (L), @NO (L), PIT (W), OAK (W), @BAL (L), @TEN (W), JAX (W), CLE (W), @TB (W), @JAX (W), ATL (L), @CIN (W), CAR (W), @IND (L), TEN (W)

In The End: It seems like every year by now is going to be their “breakthrough” year. Finally, it seems like the time has arrived. The entire division is in some kind of flux, and the Texans have finally made the improvements they need at the right time to take the control. Their postseason debut will finally find them this time around, via a South championship. Record 10-6

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6 in 2010)

Offense: P. Manning-QB, R. Wayne-WR, D. Clark-TE, J. Saturday-C (A)

Defense: D. Freeney-DE, R. Mathis-DE, G. Brackett-MLB, A. Bethea-S (C+)

The Good: Many of their offensive weapons are back. Last season Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai all missed extensive time. However, Peyton Manning was able to mask these issues by just shouldering more of the load himself than he ever had. The problem is he is the only QB in the league that could have pulled that off and still won the division. With his status completely unknown, having the arsenal of weapons back is essential.

The Bad: The corners could get torched. Jacob Lacey, Jerraud Powers, Kevin Thomas and Justin Tryson could be in rotation by necessity all year as they try to find a way to get some combination that works will. If they don’t step up, it could be a very long season for the Colts defense, as they were awful against the run a year ago, giving up 127 yards a game. Some part of the defense has to produce.

How soon Peyton gets his hat off and helmet on will tell the story of the Colts fate, and in a hurry.

X-Factor-Peyton Manning: No team’s success hinges more on one player than the Colts. Since 1998, he’s played every game and operates the entire offense through himself. And as he proved a year ago, he can still push them regardless of who surrounds him. As the preseason proved, it doesn’t work the other way around. Very few players are truly irreplaceable, but Peyton is at the top of the list.

Fearless Prediction: @HOU (L), CLE (W), PIT (L), @TB (W), KC  (L), @CIN (W), @NO (L), @TEN (L), ATL (L), JAX (W), CAR (W), @NE (L), @BAL (L), TEN (W), HOU (W), @JAX (W)

In The End: Much of where they finish up is based on when Manning shows up, but the toughest part of their schedule is early and that’s when his availability is uncertain. They slipped some last season overall, and didn’t make the necessary adjustments to hold off the up and coming Texans…or to prepare for Manning to actually miss any time. Their two-year run atop the South will end. Record: 7-9

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (8-8 in 2010)

Offense: M. Jones-Drew-RB, M. Lewis-TE, M. Thomas-WR, B. Gabbert-QB (C+)

Defense: D. Smith-OLB, P. Poslunzsny-MLB, R. Mathis-CB, D. Landry-FS (C+)

The Good: The defense was improved to be able to handle more of the load. Paul Posluszny will add a second active tackler with Daryl Smith that will clean up the middle of the field well. The defensive line features an underrated pair of tackles in Tyson Aluala and Travis Knighton, and Matt Roth joins the group to round it out well opposite Aaron Kampman. The biggest addition could be Dawan Landry at free safety, a position that has long been a week spot in Jacksonville.

The Bad: It’s going to be a long season on offense either way it goes. The receiver group is already an issue, with no semblance of a number one target out the WR group. At least David Garrard was a savvy enough vet to not lose games with the group, but with his sudden release it puts Luke McCown in the seat until the Blaine Gabbert era is rushed into play. Maurice Jones-Drew is still here and well rested, but teams will load up the box non-stop to get to him in a hurry since there is no QB of note to scare them off.

How Daryl Smith and the defense shoulder the load will tell the story of the Jags...and Jack Del Rio's future.

X-Factor-Blaine Gabbert: He’s got all of the tools: the big arm, the size and the confidence. The time is now for him, because there’s nothing to be gained competitively from playing McCown. He doesn’t represent the type of QB that will be able to salvage a playoff run, and by at least playing Gabbert, it starts the clock towards his maturity (and the team renaissance that could come with it) earlier.

Fearless Prediction: TEN (W), @NYJ (L), @CAR (W), NO (L), CIN (W), @PIT (L), BAL (L), @HOU (L), @IND (L), @CLE (W), HOU (W), SD (L), TB (W), @ATL (L), @TEN (L), IND (L)

In The End: There’s a lot on the line in Jacksonville this year, and a late season surge last year was all that saved coach Jack Del Rio’s job. This year’s defense has the potential to keep that trend going forward, but unsteady QB production will be a season long problem and will run the rest of time off Del Rio’s clock in Jacksonville. Record: 5-11

TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10 in 2010)

Offense: C. Johnson-RB, K. Britt-WR, M. Hasselbeck-QB, R. Bironas-K (B-)

Defense: C. Finnegan-CB, M. Griffin-S, W. Witherspoon-OLB, C. Hope-S (C)

The Good: The offense came together, later than sooner. Chris Johnson’s holdout was ended in time to have their biggest weapon available for the full season. There’s no substitute for what he brings, especially to a team in transition. His load won’t be as heavy with Matt Hasselbeck on board this year, and while he’s not who he used to be, he will be a steadying presence that will be able to get everything that can be brought out the receivers.

The Bad: The defense could get worse, and considering it was assaulted for 252 yards a week through the air last year, that’s a bad scenario. This is due to an anemic pass rush that lost its only real pass rush threat in Jason Babin, and a secondary that is both too young at cornerback and too old at safety. The unimproved defensive line also what hammered for 115 yards a game on the ground a year ago, and is breaking in new tackles at both spots inside the defensive line.

Munchak inherited a messy situation in Tennessee, and has a task ahead of him to pull this group back together.

X-Factor-Kenny Britt: He escaped both suspension, jail for multiple driving offenses and preseason injury to make it to the field, and he could be in store for a breakout season as a result. Hasselbeck will be the most consistent passer he has paired with in his young career, and coming off a year where 9 of his 42 catches reached the endzone, he will be looked too often.

Fearless Prediction: @JAX (L), BAL (L), DEN (W), @CLE (W), @PIT (L), HOU (L), IND (L), CIN (W), @CAR (L), @ATL (L), TB (L), @BUF (W), NO (L), @IND (L), JAX (W), @HOU (L)

In The End: The offense has playmakers, but isn’t deep and has a fragile quarterback behind a shaky line. In addition, the defense will have trouble getting after the passer…and isn’t really built to stop the pass on the other end. They’ll break in their first new coach in 16 years (Mike Munchak) with a frustrating debut on the job. Record: 5-11

To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.

This year in the CHEAP SEATS we I will be providing a number of countdowns of various subjects from the current, past and future of sports in the form of top 10 lists. Criteria will be listed, and debated I’m sure. This is the first entry in this new series.


The NFL Playoffs are on deck for the weekend, and as usual virtually every team has a chance to make some noise. However, for some of these clubs certain players will mean more to their success than others. Even teams that are on the bye this weekend will need to have particular guys come through, or they are just eligible for a “one and done” as any other club. Now it doesn’t take a genius to know that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning or Ed Reed will have to play well for their teams to succeed, so they won’t be listed here. However, there are some players, a mixture of stars and role players, that have to show up more than any other to ensure they don’t have a quick stop in the Playoffs. Those are the guys were talking here.

****TOP 10 “MUST SHOWS”****

10. DeSean Jackson-Eagles: The game’s most exciting receiver, and threat to score from literally anywhere, in any way, every time he touches the ball. His big play habit alone is enough to win a game or two for Philly, where one touchdown in his style can make a big momentum swing in the Eagles’ favor.

9. Blair White-Colts: Indy is scraping the barrel of their offensive roster due to a plethora of injuries, but White has stepped up and been a big find. He must be a steady and effective option, in the mold of Austin Collie, to give Peyton both another option and to pull defenses away from the now swarmed Reggie Wayne.

 

White (5 TDs in '10) is an invaluable option in the Indianapolis offense, due to several injured mainstays.

8. Antonio Cromartie-Jets: All season, teams have targeted him as opposed to his All-World teammate at corner on the other side of the field, with varying success. Now is the time for Cromartie to deliver on the All-Pro reputation he brought to New York with him. If he makes a few QBs regret looking his way it could be all the difference between a short or long playoff stay for the J-E-T-S’.

7. BenJarvus Green-Ellis-Patriots: For years the Pats have used what seems like 20 running backs in rotation, per game. Green-Ellis ended any need for that this year, in route to becoming the first 1,000 yard rusher in New England since 2004.  The running game is everything in the playoffs, and is crucial to keeping defenses honest to set up Brady taking advantage of them down field for the big play.

6. Dwayne Bowe-Chiefs: He has as much big play talent as any receiver in the league, but his chronically bad timed drops keep him from maximizing his potential consistently. There are some tough run defenses in between a possible KC run (literally) to the top of the AFC, so they will need Bowe ready to carry the weight of the offense. In order to do this he has to leave his iron hands at home.

5. Jay Cutler-Bears: He’s a huge wild card, as big of a question mark of any quarterback still playing at this point. If he doesn’t get into sync he could just as easily lose the game through erratic passes, as he could win it for the Bears. He MUST stay within himself and not try to win the game with every toss.

 

A Playoff return is why Cutler was brought to the Chi. Now he must avoid issues that have led to 42 ints in 2 years.

4. Reggie Bush-Saints: The running back spot seems to be cursed in the Bayou this year. First starting RB Pierre Thomas went down, now Christopher Ivory is on crutches. Bush’s role as a pure backfield runner, and his effectiveness in it, will be a huge factor in Saints attempt to add to their first Super Bowl title. If he can provide balance and pick up consistent yards, it will mean the world to the depleted Saints running game, as I doubt Julius Jones is the answer.

3. Troy Polamalu-Steelers: It obvious that he is a game changer, but its his health that is the biggest factor here. His presence changes EVERYTHING about the entire game plan for both the Steelers and their opponent. With a first round bye, he may be more rested and healthier than he has been in weeks, and when he is at full strength, no defensive player in the league has a bigger impact on their team’s fortunes than Polamalu.

2. Mark Sanchez-Jets: He had another rollercoaster year that didn’t exactly inspire unshakable confidence in his ability to lead this club. Even his Head Coach, Rex Ryan, doesn’t have absolute faith what he will be week t0 week. The bottom line is that a quarterback in control of his team is most valuable at this point, and the Jets can’t advance far if they have to protect their game planning against their own QB. He has to make it happen so they can play loose and with a real winner’s confidence.

 

Sanchez's confidence, composure and consistency can mean much more the Jets' success than anything else.

1. Michael Vick-Eagles: With great power comes great responsibily…and controversy apparently. After an amazingly productive season, featuring a few classic performances & landing him at the heart of the MVP race for most of the year, he’s being questioned once again. Even his status as #1 QB on his club for the playoffs is being debated somehow. I don’t understand this, because no player has been a bigger boost to his team’s level of play than Vick this year. He’s the league’s most dangerous weapon again, and no player’s performance over the next month will have a bigger impact on how far his club goes.