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.
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
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
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.